Archive for the ‘The Writing Craft’ Category

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

March 28th, 2014 | Deep Thoughts, Questions from Beginners, Quick Tips, Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft | 34 Comments

So it’s spring break for most people. You might be heading out of town, or driving to the beach, or trying to find a place to relax and dive into that new book you bought. I’m going the same thing — well… I live at the beach, so I’m not heading there, but I am trying to ditch the crowds find some quiet so I can read today. I have a long list of projects I want to get caught up on, so instead of doing emails and taking phone calls, I’m going to try and get away and just read for a while.

And that, of course, means I don’t think I’ll take the time to create a new blog post. Instead, I’ll let you YOU create it. One simple question: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

It might be something about craft, or a trick you learned, something about writing quickly or leaving writer’s block behind. It could be advice on creating characters, or raising the stakes, or leaving people with a memorable lesson. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you’ve no doubt heard (or read) some great bit of wisdom that you took to heart and you noticed it changed your work. Share it with us. Just click on the “comment” bar below and offer the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received. You’re welcome to give us context, and tell who said it and what the circumstances were, if you want to — but don’t feel you HAVE to. You’re welcome to just offer one sentence with the advice you’ve got.

I do this once each year or so, and I have gleaned some wonderful tips from people over the years. Would love to hear what you have to share with your fellow writers. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Thursdays with Amanda: Respecting Your Art

March 20th, 2014 | Marketing and Platforms, Self-Publishing, The Writing Craft | 13 Comments

Amanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

An old college friend was telling me a story about a potential client he was talking with. This friend of mine does freelance editing and proofing (he proofed my book, The Extroverted Writer), and so he is regularly courting new clients, trying to meet their expectations while also sharing with them the reality of the business.

This particular client of my friend’s was one of those type A, demanding, bull-headed types. You know who I’m talking about…a real-life Miranda Priestly or Bart Bass. Shrewd. Demanding. With no concept or concern for how much work it takes to produce a quality result.

The client had a 58,000-word manuscript that he wanted proofread, but the real kicker was that he wanted the project done in two days. When my friend pushed back and told him that, with a full-time job and other responsibilities on top of his freelancing gig, there was no way he could get it done and done well in that timeframe, the guy refused to accept such an answer. Said something about how it HAD to be ready for publication and how there was NO ROOM FOR AN EXTENSION.

My friend politely turned the project down.

I used to edit and proofread for a publishing company. They’d hand me a fiction manuscript, give me a week’s worth of time, and then a month later a check for a whopping $150 would hit my account. I had gotten the job after hearing that they needed someone to edit and proof for under $200 a pop. I had taken it, thinking it wouldn’t be that hard…I mean eight hours on a manuscript at $150/per is some decent money for someone just starting out.

But reality was much less rosy. The manuscripts I received were in shambles–the things should never have been published to begin with, and it was MY job to whip them into shape. To not only catch the numerous grammatical errors (specifically, an inability to punctuate dialogue) but to point out any glaring issues I had with the story (where to begin??). By the second manuscript, the magic had dissipated. The spell was broken. I was no longer enthusiastic about the job. I abhorred it.

If they were going to pay me for $150 worth of work, then $150 worth of work was exactly what they were going to get. You get what you pay for, eh?

So what’s my point in all this? Why bring up cheap-o publishers and pushy self-pubbing authors?

Because I am sick and tired of people disrespecting the craft.

Self-publishing has made it so easy to do this …”authors” these days shop around for the cheapest, quickest editors and designers and proofers. And when they don’t want to pay a dime, they do it themselves. Microsoft Paint book covers plague Amazon, and if you ever meet a self-published author, they can tell you story after story of how much they learned AFTER they uploaded their book. The typos and the plot holes and the inconsistencies–so many things that had to be fixed after the fact.

In some cases, they just didn’t know better. They were trying to be artists, but they’d just learned to paint.

But in other cases…I’ve seen respected authors disrespect their own work.

So this is my plea to you! I’m going to spend a few weeks talking about self publishing and hybrid publishing. And the deal is that as I go down this route, you must promise that if you end up trying your hand at this self-publishing thing, you will keep the art pure. You must promise to respect your books, respect the process, and respect the fact that just because you could self-publish, it doesn’t mean you should.

Capisci?

The Amazingly Easy Short Cut Guide To Becoming A Great Writer (Tongue-In-Cheek Advice for The Lazy)

January 27th, 2014 | Questions from Beginners, Quick Tips, The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

BY GUEST AUTHOR KATHARINE GRUBB

Some are born great writers, some aspire to being a great writer and some have writerly
greatness thrust upon them. Then, sometimes, neither of those three options apply to us and we have to bushwhack our own path to greatness.

Is it just me, or does that sound like a lot of work?

I’d like to suggest that our writerly ambitions can be accomplished with little or no effort. In fact, I have a list of ten things you can do (or not do) to accomplish this goal. (If accomplishing goals is your thing.) I would have come up with eleven, but I got tired.

1. Don’t Write. Your day is busy enough. In fact, spend your down time doing things like hurling birds into piles of thieving pigs. Tell yourself that this is brain work! Your writing future is dependent on whether or not you see Downton Abbey! Every time you have a nagging thought that tells, you that maybe you should do Nanowrimo or something like that, just watch an episode of Hoarders until the feeling goes away. Smugness, with lack of physical activity, can be just as comforting as that pesky sense of accomplishment that comes with dedication and commitment. Trust me.

2. Don’t read. This is obvious. Since really there aren’t any new plots, there isn’t any point in reading at all. If you need to know something, don’t go any deeper than a search on Wikipedia. If you want a story to entertain you, you’ve got Netflix, right? Besides fiction is made up stories, which are basically lies. Just don’t bother. In fact, if you are reading this blog, stop right now and turn on Pandora, the Shakira station.

3. Hang Out With Stupid People. This should be easy. If you want to avoid greatness, then spend a lot of time with those who are content to stay where they are. It’s way, way easier to avoid reading and writing if your BFFs are Neanderthals. The people who actually accomplish something in their lives would take the effort (and it is effort) to find smart, inspiring, intelligent and encouraging people to rub elbows with, learn from and be mentored by. Not only is keeping such company hard, it’s risky too. You might not be liked or appreciated, or you might be thought to be stupid. It’s better not to take a chance.

4. Expect the universe to bring you want you want. You know that old phrase, luck favors the prepared? Don’t listen to it, that’s something that personal trainers and high school coaches say. There are plenty of statistics, but I’ve not bothered to find them, that shows that these people have never won the lottery and they’re bitter about it. Not you. Your talent/desires/destinies are special enough that the universe will just trip one day and it will all spill in your lap. So go back to bed. We’ll call you when the universe shows up.

5. If you have to write, look for short cuts. Hard work and diligence are for those people not smart enough to beat the system. Hustle, if you don’t know already, is a dance move from the ’70s, not a verb for people who want to accomplish great things. So if you must send a query letter (but if you do, you’re missing the point of this post entirely) don’t worry about spelling and grammar. Real agents can spot talent without the rules bringing you down.

6. If you have to work, and you make a mistake, then quit as soon as possible. Life should be easy and if you make mistakes, then you’re doing it wrong. If you hang out with the right kind of people, they will tell you about all the big dreams that they once had and how they quit when the going got tough. These people may be called quitters in some circles, but in others, they are called realists. Oh, and if you’re on a reality show when you do decide to quit, make sure you make a big scene, spew profanity and throw something. You never know when a future employer might hire you because of your spirit.

7. Never Ask Questions. First of all, you’re so smart, you don’t need to ask questions and if you do ask, it will just make you look weak. Secondly, even if you do ask, it may mean that you will not like the answer. You may have to change your way of thinking or how you do something. You are waiting for the universe to drop your destiny in your life, you don’t have time to change! It’s far better just to nod and smile and make it look like you know what you’re doing.

8. Hold Your Head Up High. You should broadcast loudly how little you are doing to pursue your dreams. (Pursue is far too strong a verb here, go easy on yourself and use the word, ponder.) People will respect your brashness and individual spirit. They will, most assuredly, talk about you behind your back and say things like, “She is so smart and optimistic! I admire her commitment to her pondering!”

9. Call Yourself What You Are. Do you dream of being a published writer? Call yourself that! It doesn’t matter that you haven’t published anything. You know that advice that says, “Dress for the job that you want, not the one that you have”? Well, I say, call yourself the job you want, not the job that you have. The universe will take notice of this and bow to your wishes. Eventually. Believing in yourself is half the battle, right? If you have the right kind of friends and family, they will believe you even though you’ve never really written. But, I wouldn’t suggest mentioning that you are a CEO of a Fortune 500 company when you fill out a bank loan, unless you have the pay stubs to prove it.

10. Wait. This is the easiest step for anyone who wants to be great. Just wait. Kick back on the LaZ-Boy, fall asleep on the couch, turn in early. It will come eventually. You’ve done nothing to make it happen, so everything you want will come to you like a dream.

Katharine Grubb has been represented by MacGregor Literary since April 2013 as a result of a contract really falling in her lap. Her book , The Ten Minute Novel: How to Write A Novel in Ten Minute Increments, will be released in 2015 by Hodder & Stoughton. She’s also self-published two novels, Falling For Your Madness and The Truth About The Sky. Katherine homeschools her five children and lives in Massachusetts. She blogs at www.10minutewriter.com and hopes every reader of this article has a sense of humor.

A Workshop on Getting Published

January 7th, 2014 | Agents, Books, Career, Conferences, Marketing and Platforms, Proposals, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Resources for Writing, The Business of Writing, The Writing Craft | 0 Comments

BY CHIP MACGREGOR

 

A new writing conference is fast approaching — and you’re invited.

On Saturday, February 15, I will be speaking at the Dallas Writers’ University. It’s a one-day event, with a rather intensive agenda:

  • I’ll speak on “developing a book proposal that sells,” and the focus will be on giving practical, hands-on help to writers who want to create a proposal that will get noticed.
  • I’ll also be speaking on “creating your long-term publishing strategy,” with an emphasis on traditional publishing, niche publishing, self-publishing, and alternative strategies for writers to make a living.
  • Michelle Borquez, bestselling author and entrepreneur, will explore “building a platform around your concept.”
  • There will be a Q&A time, and everybody there will have a face to face meeting with me sometime during the day.
  • Finally, Michelle and I will be talking about the secret to success in contemporary publishing.

I’m really looking forward to this opportunity. I’ve largely taken time away from conferences the past couple years, but I love talking to authors about proposals and strategy. And you’re invited. Again, every participant gets face time with me, where we’ll be reviewing proposals and talking about next steps in a one-on-one setting. That means our space is limited to just 30 people.

Here’s the thing . . . there are a hundred conferences you can go to in order to get some basic information on writing. But if you really want to join a small group and find out how to create a book that will sell, make some money, and gain entry into the world of publishing by talking to some experienced people in the industry, I hope you’ll consider joining us. I don’t do many conferences anymore (and rarely do a writing conference), so I’m excited to be asked to be part of this one.

The event is going to be in the Dallas area, at a church in White Settlement. The cost is $225 and includes lunch – but if you mention this blog when you sign up, you can attend for $199. You can find out all you need to know by clicking here.

If you live anywhere in the area, I would love to have you come and introduce yourself to me.

Feel free to ask me questions — happy to be doing this!

FINDING YOUR VOICE

November 22nd, 2013 | Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft | 13 Comments

GUEST WRITER  ANE MULLIGAN

President of the award-winning literary site, Novel Rocket, Ane Mulligan writes Southern-fried fiction served with a tall, sweet iced tea. While a large, floppy straw hat is her favorite, she’s worn many different ones: hairdresser, legislative affairs director (that’s a fancy name for a lobbyist), business manager, drama director and writer. Her lifetime experience provides a plethora of fodder for her Southern-fried fiction (try saying that three times fast). A three-time Genesis finalist, Ane is a published playwright and columnist. She resides in Suwanee, GA, with her artist husband and two very large dogs, and has just returned from the ACFW conference.

Finding Your Voice

Fiction writers are told to find their voice. Well, what is it, and for that matter, how do you find it?

I mastered the mechanics of good writing by learning and following the guidelines or … stay with me here … the rules. It’s kind of like staying between the lines in a coloring book before taking on a blank sheet of art paper. Then, I began to understand when and how to break those rules to turn my manuscript into a symphony of words.

About that same time, I started a new series, and when I sent my critique partners the first chapter, they told me I’d found my voice. Cool. I didn’t know I’d lost it. I mean, I didn’t have laryngitis or even a sore throat.

Okay, I’m being silly and probably not very funny, so you can stop rolling your eyes. In truth, I’d been working on voice. I read Les Edgerton’s book Finding Your Voice. I highly recommend it if you’re still looking for yours.

In Edgerton’s book, he said go back and look at letters you’d written when you were young or at least before you began to write. There was your voice.

As I thought about that, I remembered how our friends always told me they loved my Christmas letters. Mine were the ones they actually read and looked forward to. If I was late with it I received a few “Where is it?” emails. Instead of a travelogue or a report on the kiddos’ doings, I made up stories about the major events of the past year, poking fun at us and liberally adding embellishments.

I pulled out those past Christmas letters and studied them. I noticed the cadence, the style, and the sound of them. That’s what I wanted in my fiction. I then tried a new game of “Name that Author.”

First, I went to a multi-author blog—it doesn’t work on any other type. (NOTE: This needs to be a blog of authors well known to you.) I chose Girls Write Out. Then, before I looked at the signature or by-line, I tried to guess who wrote it. Between the post and their fiction, I could see the similarity in the “voice.” It was natural and organic to the author. While some may have similarities, especially if they write in the same genre, each author does have a unique voice.

If you’re still developing your writing voice, read … a lot. Don’t copy another writer, but rather study what they do and how they do it. Then look at something you wrote before you started perusing a writing career. Forget the mechanics for a moment. What did the writing sound like? That’s most likely your voice.

Try it for a while and see what happens.

Thursdays with Amanda: Why I hate NaNoWriMo

November 21st, 2013 | The Writing Craft, Trends | 72 Comments

Amanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

(I’m taking a break from all-things-marketing for the rest of 2013…so if you’re here for posts on platforms and promotions, stay tuned…they’ll come with the new year).

It never fails. Each November 1, my Facebook news feed is full of bright-eyed, hopeful, excited writers, eager to embark on their quest to write 50,000 words in 30 days. The camaraderie is awesome. The energy, infectious. And each year there is a teeny tiny part of me that wonders if I sign up, too.

Then, week one ends. The energy, though still pulsing, is a tad weaker. The number of people talking about their goals, less frequent. Then comes the first admittance of failure:

“Stuff came up with the family…can’t finish NaNo this year. :(”

Not a big deal. Those still in the trenches assure that person that there was nothing they could have done to change their situation and that NEXT YEAR it will be different.

But then week two hits. And week three. And you get to the 21st of the month (the day I’m writing this post), and it’s as if NaNoWriMo isn’t even taking place. Of my thirty-plus Facebook friends who had advertised their participatin in NaNo, a small handful remain. And even then, their updates are sparse, full of stress. Full of doubt. They’ve been beaten down and they don’t know how they’ll pull through.

This is why I hate NaNoWriMo. It sets writers up to fail.

As if writers need yet another reason to question their craft. To doubt whether they’re cut out for this author gig. As if they need another reminder that they can’t do it. They’re failures. They should quit while they’re ahead.

NaNo does this to tens of thousands if not HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of writers each and every year. There are over 300,000 signed up for the program this year. Let’s say a two-thirds achieve the 50k in one month goal. That’s 100,000 WRITERS WHO HAVE FAILED.

I hate this. I hate this, I hate this, I hate this. I hate seeing my Facebook and Twitter streams mention NaNo less and less. I hate how it means writers are failing and they’re feeling terrible because of it. They’re feeling ashamed. They’re feeling like they’ll never measure up.

I hate reading about writers who are frantically trying to fix what went wrong. They’re pulling all-nighters so they can catch up with their word count. They’re ditching family events, putting Christmas shopping on hold. All so that they can try and salvage the wreck. “Failure” is looming, and they’re trying so hard to evade…so hard to pull away. But they can’t. Why?

Most writers simply cannot write 50,000 words in one month.

So why force yourself to this standard? Why not accept that you work at a different pace? WHY PUT YOURSELF THROUGH SUCH TORTURE? Because you just need to plow through? Because you want to see if you can do it? Because this is the only way to turn off your self-editor?

There are other ways, my friends. There are other ways. Ways that don’t involve tears and bloodshed.

So this is it…this is the main reason I hate NaNoWriMo, the crash diet for those looking to get into some kind of healthy writing lifestyle. I could also mention how even if one finishes the program, it sets writers up for disappointment.  Fact is, no one buys novellas anymore. So your 50,000-word novel? There’s nothing I nor any other agent can do with it. Not to mention that it is SUCH a feat to freaking finish the 50k in 30days task, that few want to take the time to go back and polish their stories. Few want to edit. Few want to rework. And that certainly doesn’t do anyone any favors. Because 50,000 words written in 30 days (most of the writing time taking place late at night) is not going to be publishable material. So the writers walk away, saying they’ll come back to it…which they do, months later, and are suddenly depressed by how much work needs to be done. Most start over.

And even the very mention of NaNo can be an issue. Most writers don’t realize this. Most writers don’t realize that when talking with an agent or editor, the moment they mention “well, I have that NaNoWriMo manuscript that I could dust off…” we’re panicking inside. We’re wondering how to say no. We’re closing the door on the opportunity because most of the NaNo stuff we see is absolutely terrible.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

I hate NaNoWriMo. I hate what it does to authors. I hate the stress it brings. I hate how it communicates “you are a failure” to so many of my friends. And I hate the stigma that comes with a NaNo manuscript.

So that’s my take on NaNoWriMo…what about you? Love it? Hate it? Or maybe you’re indifferent? Let me know.

This post was and is purely my opinion. I know NaNoWriMo has done great things for some writers, and I’m happy for them. I also know that others truly look forward to it each and every year. I’m not discounting that, and this isn’t me attempting to provoke an argument or conversely, fish for compliments and public affirmation. This is just my two cents, k? K.

Do you miss my marketing posts? Check out my $5 ebook, The Extroverted Writer

Here’s what readers are saying: ”…it doesn’t just tell you the things you should be doing. It shows you how to do those things.” - Chris Kolmorgen, Amazon Review

What do I need to know about memoir?

October 1st, 2013 | The Writing Craft | 11 Comments

I’ve had several people ask me about memoir lately. It’s been a growth category lately in publishing, and that means we’re going to see more memoir proposals from writers. In reviewing what we’ve been seeing, could I offer three general tips to keep in mind about the genre?

First,understand the difference between memoir and autobiography and self-help or personal story. An autobiography is simply the review of one’s life — the events the happened, in order, covering the who, where, when, and what. In other words, an autobiography is history. A memoir, on the other hand, isn’t bound by those restrictions at all. The focus is on remembered events of the author, so it can cover the big days, skip most of the other days, and focus on lessons and themes and memories. Sometimes an author will simply tell his or her personal story, in order to create a book that attempts to help readers live more successfully in a particular area (finances, health, parenting, spirituality, etc). That’s not a memoir, but a self-help book using the author’s personal story as a backdrop on which to hang the lessons. Autobiography is out. Personal stories, for the most part, are out. Memoir is in.

Second, don’t assume because something interesting happened to you, it will be of interest to others. often get people sending me a fascinating personal story — “THIS happened to me, and everybody tells me I should write a book about it!” My response is usually: “yaaaaaawn.” Yes, interesting things still happen. Yes, I think people can change. Yes, I believe God is alive and doing great things. Yes, miracles can occur. And yes, lives get changed in incredible ways, and the re-telling of that can be valuable (just like we re-tell our personal stories to our kids, and just like the ancient tradition of having people share testimonies in church) .But the fact that something amazing happened to you does not have anything to do with the creation of a book. The whole “personal story” book era has come and gone (circa 1977). For the most part, nobody is buying your personal story unless you have celebrity, or major media, or a big speaking platform attached to it. However, IF you can write exceptionally well, AND you’ve got a big story, AND you can reveal yourself on the page, AND get beyond the retelling of what happened in order to get us to think about the greater issues of how that changed you and why that’s important, THEN you’ve got the potential to write a memoir. Again, as a reader I’ve got to relate to your character, trust that you’re being honest, be interested in your story, and expect you to relate to timeless questions about life faced in complex circumstances. I want to read about the decisions you made, knowing those decisions might not have been right, and then read about the results. If all those things come into play, you’ve got potential with your memoir.

Third, don’t tell me about all your mistakes — show me. Make me like you before you dump dirt. If I’m not feeling sympathy for you, I’m going to stop reading. So don’t just share a bunch of bad stuff about your family, thinking your catharsis is necessarily fascinating reading to others. Don’t assume I’m interested in something just because you are. Again, story will trump a recitation of events. (In I WENT TO THE ANIMAL FAIR, Heather Harpham reveals the presence of some mental illness in her family by telling the story of visiting her grandmother’s house one day and finding toast nailed to the wall. Her entire family was there, but nobody talked about it. They all pretended they didn’t see it, or maybe that toast on the wall was a routine occurence. A fascinating detail.)

I tend to think writing memoir is a hard task, since you have to be skilled in telling the truth, which is nonfiction writing, yet use fiction techniques to keep readers with your story. And, frankly, there are VERY few writers who do both fiction and nonfiction well — which is why there are so few American writers who excel on both the fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists. They require different skills, in my view. I love memoir, but it’s one of the hardest genres to write well. 


Finding Your Voice (a guest blog)

September 30th, 2013 | The Writing Craft | 11 Comments

Fiction writers are told to find their voice. Well, what is it, and for that matter, how do you find it?

I mastered the mechanics of good writing by learning and following the guidelines or … stay with me here … the rules. It’s kind of like staying between the lines in a coloring book before taking on a blank sheet of art paper. Then, I began to understand when and how to break those rules to turn my manuscript into a symphony of words.

About that same time, I started a new series, and when I sent my critique partners the first chapter, they told me I’d found my voice. Cool. I didn’t know I’d lost it. I mean, I didn’t have laryngitis or even a sore throat.

Okay, I’m being silly and probably not very funny, so you can stop rolling your eyes. In truth, I’d been working on voice. I read Les Edgerton’s book Finding Your Voice. I highly recommend it if you’re still looking for yours.

In Edgerton’s book, he said go back and look at letters you’d written when you were young or at least before you began to write. There was your voice.

As I thought about that, I remembered how our friends always told me they loved my Christmas letters. Mine were the ones they actually read and looked forward to. If I was late with it I received a few “Where is it?” emails. Instead of a travelogue or a report on the kiddos’ doings, I made up stories about the major events of the past year, poking fun at us and liberally adding embellishments.

I pulled out those past Christmas letters and studied them. I noticed the cadence, the style, and the sound of them. That’s what I wanted in my fiction. I then tried a new game of “Name that Author.”

First, I went to a multi-author blog—it doesn’t work on any other type. (NOTE: This needs to be a blog of authors well known to you.) I chose Girls Write Out. Then, before I looked at the signature or by-line, I tried to guess who wrote it. Between the post and their fiction, I could see the similarity in the “voice.” It was natural and organic to the author. While some may have similarities, especially if they write in the same genre, each author does have a unique voice.

If you’re still developing your writing voice, read … a lot. Don’t copy another writer, but rather study what they do and how they do it. Then look at something you wrote before you started perusing a writing career. Forget the mechanics for a moment. What did the writing sound like? That’s most likely your voice.

Try it for a while and see what happens. 

===========================================

Ane Mulligan is an editor with the popular literary blog Novel Rocket, a columnist for the ezine Afictionado, and serves as a member of ACFW’s Operating Board. She just signed a contract with Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas for her next novel, Chapel Springs Revival. You can find out all about Ane at her website, www.anemulligan.com

More Words of Wisdom from Joyce Magnin

September 19th, 2013 | Deep Thoughts, The Writing Craft | 6 Comments

BY GUEST WRITER  JOYCE MAGNIN

Below is the second half of the text from a speech given by the well known novelist Joyce Magnin. Part I ran on September 19th.

 

THE POWER OF WORDS:  Part II

I soon became enamored with the words of Emily Dickinson and to this day I still am often awestruck with the power she could convey in so few well-chosen words. Her words, although I most of the time didn’t get what she was saying, pierced me and helped me to transcend my life. I learned to dwell in Possibility, as she called it and to concern myself with Circumference.

Circumference, a powerful word she used often, a double metaphor that is both an extension, think of the circumference of the earth and a limit, think of the sand on the shoreline.

Emily Dickinson used the word to contain some things that transcended space and time like ecstasy, and grief and I believe helped her understand God, and to touch the sublime.

Her words had the power to stun me, amuse me, and capture a feeling I couldn’t quite explain. Emily taught me that

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Hope. Emily Dickinson’s words, written long before I was born instructed me and healed me. This is the power of words.

And then I began to write, learning the difference between the spoken and the written word, I chose the written word.

Spoken words for me were hurtful most of the time, silly and uncertain coming from mouths that I

couldn’t trust,

wouldn’t trust

and sometimes hated.

 

Emily Dickinson said her “wars are laid away in books.”

 

I understood what she was saying because I knew that my wars were and forever will be laid away in books. It is in books that I found myself, my family, my friends, my God, my illusions and lies, my truth and sincerity, my joys. My battles and wars that I did not fight alone.

I wrote bad teenage poetry fraught with angst and turmoil and anger and sadness. I wrote about my father’s leather belt and my mother’s aloofness. I wrote about what it was like to become Aunt Joyce at age six and know somehow that this infant they allowed me to hold in my arms was part of me and I a part of her. I wrote about what it was like to go to school with pink welts from my father belt etched on my legs and back like railroad tracks.

I wrote about memories and feelings I was told from well meaning teachers that I was too young to experience. Teachers who didn’t know the violence and loneliness I endured at home and accused me of plagiarism. Yet I wrote and continued to write. I wrote in despair that I was even born and then in the next sentence the joy and delight and blessing of having lived.

This was the power of words for me.

I wrote about Circumference—God who because I was sixteen or seventeen or eighteen I believed I understood because I was also reading the great thinkers, Dickinson, Dostoyevsky, Camus, Hemmingway, Voltaire, Twain, Capote, Alcott, so many others I can’t name them all and so by extension I was also an expert.

I read Sylvia Plath—a poet who nearly killed me .She convinced me that words would make me crazy and the greatest privilege of life was having the capacity to end it when I saw fit. My life I thought was in my own hands. And so I attempted to end my life at age seventeen.

But because of the Word I learned that my life was not in a bell jar but in Christ.

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

But even this fledgling faith was something I hid and protected because I had to reject the faith of my father and mother because there was something terribly wrong with the way they Worked Out their Salvation. I didn’t want them to damage that part of me also. Oh, I professed faith in Christ at age nine, but not because Jesus loved me but because I was afraid of going to Hell, convinced my father would kill me.

But still, words have power and I experienced many times over a kind of soul death with them. Oh, my parents I believe were doing what they thought best most of the time, but still, damage was done. And so I found solace and understanding in books and searched for ways to understand my spiritual wars as well. The funny thing is, I didn’t always look for or find the answers in scripture, I found the answers on a quest with Frodo and Gandalf, with Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, with Sitting Bull at Wounded Knee with Maya Angelou in I know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Words are powerful and not to be toyed with. Writers have responsibility.

And I was beginning to grasp this.

When Emily Starr, the protagonist of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon talked about the flash, as she called it, that searing instant of inspiration and she just HAD no choice but to write—I understood. I also had no choice but to write.

This is what the power of Words did for me. Words created my identity.

In high school I was given another mentor, a teacher named Nancy Allan who believed in my words and talent and encouraged me to enter a writing contest. At the time my brother was in Viet Nam fighting a war I didn’t understand and so I wrote about a soldier who died. My little story placed first in this contest and again I was affirmed. I suppose now if I read the piece I would wince at how terribly written it must have been but still, the judges saw something, a spark and that was rewarded. My parents never knew.

When Emily Dickinson wrote

A word is dead

When it is said

Some say.

I say it just begins

To live that day.

I learned that words were alive. The scriptures tell us this is true.

Words breathe. Maya Angelou said that Words are Things. Think about that for a second or two. Words are THINGS, they have bulk and mass and volume. They are in us and on us, in our hair on our clothes, stuck to the bottom of our shoes. Words are THINGS.

When I read the poem

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

I learned the power of words. And how words created images. Concrete images. So much depends on WORDS.

When my father or mother would spew hurtful words at me I learned also that ingesting harmful words is powerful. Because they are things that stick. When my dog would come home after a romp through the fields I would have to pick the burrs out of her fur. Words are like that. They stick.

When the pastor says the benediction after his message I am covered, sheltered, umbrellaed with words. Words that stick. Words written thousands of years ago, ancient words still stick, still have the power to shield.

And as I grew and finally, mercifully found myself on the other side of adolescence I became more and more serious about my gift, my words, about writing. And I found another mentor.

In college. His name was Robert Hill and he taught me about writing. One day after reading my words he said, “This is good. You have an ear for the music of language.”

Again I was smitten. This time not only with the joy of words but also with the sound of my own writing. It was as though I was given my gift twice. God reached down and confirmed once again that this was the path. I determined even more to remain true to the gift at any cost, and much later even at the cost of enduring a difficult marriage.

I wrote even more after that, sometimes at a fevered pitch as though the words couldn’t come fast enough. I wrote short stories that were about the life I saw around me. I didn’t dig very far. It was for me, what Eudora Welty said, ““Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life.”

Stumbling upon cause and effect. Yes. This was the power of words. Putting one word next to another word began to make it possible for me to see how my life was going, what interested me and what did not. When I really had no sense of where I was going I continued on. Stumbling toward meaning.

My own stories of the time, though most likely terribly written for the most part almost always had at least one instance of brilliance. A moment, a sentence  suspended as on a gossamer web for me when I knew that the words I had just scribbled on paper or tapped out on a typewriter came from somewhere beyond myself yet inside myself. Circumference. It is as though I was the eye of the hurricane moving slothfully on as the words whirled around me. Words are powerful. Words are caught in the wind.

If your words don’t sometimes surprise you than perhaps you really haven’t written yet.

Words are things.

Words appear to writers like drops of rain or snowflakes or grains of sand. Think for a moment about how many words you know? Would you be astounded to know that the average adult knows about 30,000 words? Does it seem like enough? Does that begin to fill the bucket? Is 30,00 words enough to contain God. Of course not. This is why we are told in Romans 8 that the Holy Spirit groans on our behalf in words unknowable.

I learned that words are not always concrete. That their meaning can fluctuate. That context is what gives our words their meaning. Even so called nonsense words have meaning when the context is understood.

Remember Alice in Wonderland when she found the poem?

The Jabberwocky

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

This was Alice’s impression after she read the poem.

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate’

There is something about our brains, the portion of our brain called Broca’s  Area that endeavors to understand language all the time. That seems to continue functioning even when we are not using language. This is why writers are always writing. We have perhaps an overzealous Broca’s Area. This is why jogging or doing needlecraft, a creative thing that doesn’t involve language is good for writers. Broca’s Area continues to process even when we believe we are not.

After college my love for words continued to grow. I read and read and read everything I could sometimes to my dismay. Sometimes I would put a book down and say. “How. How did he, how did she write that?” What’s wrong with me? Perhaps I am kidding myself into thinking I have talent. Does a love for words and books necessarily mean I can write?

The only answer I could give was NO. I needed to learn to wield words with skill and art and craft.

And this is my charge to all of you. It is not enough to love words, to even be gifted. You must learn your craft, take it seriously and study.

You must be readers. I cannot imagine how anyone can claim she is a writer unless she is also a reader.

It’s true now that I don’t have the time to read as much as I would like but I do know that having been a reader all through my life has taught me more in some ways than any writing class I might have taken.

Words are things.

Words have power.

Words are to the author what paint is to the artist, clay to the potter, notes to the musician. Words are our medium.

Words are THINGS.

 

About Joyce Magnin:

“I am the author of seven novels — five adult novels and two middle grade readers. I never wanted to do anything else but write, and every day I wake up astonished that I get to do what I always dreamed about. My days are filled with words and images along with the usual family stuff. I have three children: Rebekah who is married to Joshua — they have three of the most adorable boys on the planet in Lemuel, Cedar and Soren. My daughter Emily Kate is a lovely young woman anthropologist. And my son Adam is fourteen and a student — he’s a genius who loves frogs and lizards and fish and plants. He amazes me.
“What else do you want to know? I have never eaten a scallop. I love cream soda. Drink way too much coffee. I do not like elevators but I do enjoy needle arts and of course books. I prefer jazz over country (no offense), milk chocolate over dark, but not roller coasters although my life has often resembled a roller coaster ride. One of my life’s desires is to meet music artist Amy Grant so I can tell her she saved my life.”

 

THE POWER OF WORDS

September 18th, 2013 | Deep Thoughts, The Writing Craft | 12 Comments

BY GUEST WRITER  JOYCE MAGNIN

Below is the text from a speech given by the well known novelist Joyce Magnin.

THE POWER OF WORDS: Part I

As I thought about this topic my natural inclination was to go back through my notes or talks and workshops and rehash some things that I have already taught, I thought about looking for particularly snappy passages from literature, to find wisdom in someone else’s words, wisdom and ideas that I believed as well. But as I did this I became more and more uneasy and threw out my new notes, tore pages off my yellow legal pad like they were Autumn leaves and let them rest on the floor until I had so many discarded pages I almost felt I couldn’t do this.

But then in a flash I decided to not tell you about the power of words in the same old way.

We all know this. We all know that words can heal or harm or instruct or entertain and make us laugh. No one will dispute that, and I didn’t think it would be telling you anything you didn’t already know.

So in keeping with what we began last night as I shared my personal writing journey and some thoughts on what it means to become a writer I thought it more appropriate to share with you what the power of words in my life

. . .  was . . .  is  . . . and will be because as  writers we all understand that the one common aim of our writings is to say something that will resonate with others, that our stories will matter in what Carl Jung called the collective consciousness, or the Greater Narrative. That we have something to say.

And I would suggest that this is true not just for the writer but is apropos for all our gifts. Don’t we all want to touch life in some far-reaching way, to leave some small legacy, to change, perhaps, a person going in the wrong direction. Think of your children and the power of your words.

By the time I was three years old I was totally and irrevocably wordstruck. Smitten as it were by words and what they could do. I remember sitting on the floor or at the kitchen table reading the back of my father’s newspaper. Somehow I knew that those little black marks on grayish paper had sound and meaning.

As I got just a little bit older I noticed that words were everywhere.  I particularly enjoyed reading cereal boxes. I liked to read road signs as we drove past them in my father’s car. My favorite sign was YIELD because I thought it was a funny word.

There was one sign in particular that confused me. It read: No Thoroughfare. My mother helped me pronounce it but didn’t explain it to me. The only thing Thorough I knew was a thoroughbred horse and so I thought the sign meant that we couldn’t take our horses down that road.

Words had the power to confuse and amuse me. No one I knew had a horse and so I thought the sign must have been some throw back to an earlier time, something historical, or maybe it was there just in case someone tried to ride their horse down the street.

Even at that young age I was concocting stories to help explain something I didn’t understand. This is the power of words.

And so I grew taller and a little older and went to school where I was told to read and given books, one after the other that I could take home and sit under the basement steps and read to my heart’s content yet my heart never was content. I wanted more.

I couldn’t name it then, but words had the power to hide me, to transport me from the one place I didn’t want to be—home.

My favorite day in the school year was Scholastic book day. When the books we ordered from those wonderful and colorful book order forms arrived. Back when we could purchase a stack of books, nine or ten for like a dollar or something. It was Christmas for me. I would race home with my books and hide and read, or read and hide from the dangers that lurked around me.

The problem was I thought I was unusual, a freak because here I was lost in books most of the time, bringing them to the dinner table which I’m sure we’ve all been told at one time or another was forbidden, no reading at the dinner table. I thought this was a major atrocity. Books should have been welcomed everywhere. At least back then that was what I thought. I have told my own children not bring books to supper.

Although, I will say that when I finally put it together that books were written by people I was a little disappointed. I wished they had sprung up like blades of grass, or appeared like peaches on a tree. But I can remember looking at the names on the book covers and lightly touching them with my fingertips and wishing a little of the author would seep into me.

It might just be me but I think something of this pleasure has been lost to children because of things like the internet and E-Books. The world is becoming so small when we can tap a few keys and be transported to the home of our favorite authors or read about them living their ordinary lives. I’m afraid I would have been sorely disappointed if I had that ability when I was nine or ten or eleven to be transported to Lucy Maude Montgomery’s home and see her sitting at her desk with a cat and sipping tea as she wrote Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon. I wanted authors and their words to remain shrouded and secret.

Writers and where they found their words were a mystery and that was a good thing. Unfortunately we have grown uncomfortable with mystery.

And then I was assigned to Mrs. Nichols’ third grade and I already shared the Martian story with you and how that was the day I believe my gift was anchored to my spirit.

But there was more. She continued for many years to nurture my love for words and taught me things about them that I believed no one else was learning. She introduced me to not only Mrs. Piggle Wiggle but also authors like Jack London and Ray Bradbury. I read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Bradbury and thought they were the best words on earth. A relatively new novel at the time, it didn’t matter why a story about two fourteen-year-old boys, a traveling carnival and a lightning rod salesman set in a reality light years from my own, spoke to me. What mattered was it did.

Now I admit I had to go back and look this quote up. It’s been a few years since I’ve read it. But listen to these words from Something Wicked This Way Comes.

“He knew what the wind was doing to them, where it was taking them, to all the secret places that were never so secret again in life.”

Perhaps at age eleven or twelve I didn’t quite grasp the metaphor but I think somewhere in my subconscious brain I knew this was a story about growing up and leaving the childish things behind. These words instructed me. These words made me feel less of an outsider.

Somewhere along the line I discovered an amazing place called the library, THE FREE LIBRARY OF PHILADELPHIA where I would later spend much of my days, particularly my teenage days, safe with a trillion words scattered across a million books, hidden away from what I knew were the dangers of growing up.

I knew, perhaps from reading so much, the dangers of adolescence, of lightning rod salesmen and Catchers in the Rye and what it meant to have a Separate Peace and that it was true No One Promised Me a Rose Garden, but it was okay to be Harriet the Spy and long to become Anne of Green Gables, to entertain the notion  and horror of Dracula, and find myself traveling with a rag tag band of Hobbits to Mordor, I understood why The Caged Bird Sings, I chased my own White Whale, and tumbled down a rabbit hole and because there was no one to help me navigate the turbulent waters of adolescence, I turned to books for answers, I turned to books to explain. I found Anna Karenina and read, “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And there it was, the power of words to affirm me, to inform me that I was not alone. Dysfunctional families existed even in 19th century Russia a half a world away from me, from my little spot in the library. Dysfunction existed, I discovered, even before Jesus was born.

The Bible became more than something I reluctantly carried to church on Sunday, something more than a Sword we held in the air and waited until someone called a verse and then went digging to be the first to find it. The Bible became literature, a place of story, wars and battles for not only land but body, spirit  and mind.

The Bible had much to say to me about the Power of Words, not only the words we write but those we speak, and even the words we don’t speak. Words I learned could destroy, break, or build and even change an entire nation.

The Atomic Bomb had the power to kill, the power to annihilate entire cities and all the people in it, the babies, the elders, the young men and women their dogs and chickens, their vegetable gardens and sky but what good is that? Should that be the goal of power? To leave unspeakable destruction when words can change a life. When words can bring about salvation and redemption, healing and peace, tolerance, understanding and community a future.

While everything around me was broken, I wanted my words to build and if Mrs. Nichols was correct, this was my calling and I would no matter what, remain true. The thing is, when God gives a gift he doesn’t take it back. For me it was a gift of words and at times the only truth I could hang on to. Words were like tiny life rafts that carried me through many turbulent seas.

(PART II WILL RUN ON FRIDAY!)

About Joyce Magnin:
“I am the author of seven novels — five adult novels and two middle grade readers. I never wanted to do anything else but write, and every day I wake up astonished that I get to do what I always dreamed about. My days are filled with words and images along with the usual family stuff. I have three children: Rebekah who is married to Joshua — they have three of the most adorable boys on the planet in Lemuel, Cedar and Soren. My daughter Emily Kate is a lovely young woman anthropologist. And my son Adam is fourteen and a student — he’s a genius who loves frogs and lizards and fish and plants. He amazes me.
“What else do you want to know? I have never eaten a scallop. I love cream soda. Drink way too much coffee. I do not like elevators but I do enjoy needle arts and of course books. I prefer jazz over country (no offense), milk chocolate over dark, but not roller coasters although my life has often resembled a roller coaster ride. One of my life’s desires is to meet music artist Amy Grant so I can tell her she saved my life.”