Posted by: mew | May 2, 2010

brevity, humor, and males with depth

These are a few of my favorite things?

Well, sort of.

Actually, these are some of the writing issues that I would like to work on during the course of the Creativity Workshop, which should be kicking off officially any moment now.  My final list of issues looks like this:

  1. Brevity
  2. Humor
  3. Males with Depth
  4. The South
  5. Speed
  6. Characters in Desperate Straits

I just realized that if you look at all of that as a recipe, it sort of looks like a formula for a novel I might read.  Hmm…

So here’s the breakdown.

Brevity

I’m too wordy by half.  Maybe by three quarters.  I know this is probably an editing thing, but I also know that my reluctance to curb my adverbs and cut off those dependent clauses is a result of having let the Editor get the upper hand years ago — to such an extent that he locked the Artist Child in her room.  Result:  massive, debilitating case of writer’s block.  But now I fear I’ve gone too far the other way.  I no longer want to write like Hemingway, as I did when I was 17, but there needs to be some balance.

Humor

Funny books are one of the best reasons to read.  Even a hint from the author that she and I are sharing a little gentle joke is wonderful.  But I can’t seem to get there myself, or at least, not in my fiction.  And this is really too bad, because I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told I have a quirky, whimsical, or delightful sense of humor.  Why can’t that end up in the stories?  I generally use the omniscient p.o.v., and I’m wondering if this has something to do with my opinion of God/Goddess’ sense of humor — or lack thereof.

Males with Depth

I’m pretty sure that my truest audience is Female.  That is, things I write tend to be readily appreciated by women, and if I think about it, when I picture my imaginary reader, well, she is a she.  I feel like I understand women very well, and the female characters I write are nicely rounded and often seem real to me.

Men, on the other hand, are a complete mystery.  Well, maybe not complete, but I’ll never forget what a young man I was dating in college once said to me:  “This whole men/women thing — I’m coming to realize it’s two totally different ballgames.”

And that little click went off in my head, you know?  I didn’t say it out loud, but I’m pretty sure my teenage self thought something along the lines of, “Oh, yeah, we’re seeing the world from different angles — and that’s why it’s so confusing and so many of you seem so emotionally shallow.”

That said, I know men have depth; I’m married to one of the deepest ones I’ve ever met, and he blows me away with his perception and empathy, his wry intelligence and very creative approach to living.  I have no doubt this habit of writing flattened males is just old conditioning and can be overcome with attention.  I really would like real males to show up on the page.

The South

During a recent phone conversation with a friend, she said in some shock, “You mean you’re not writing about the South?  But I thought you’d be writing some dramatic Southern epic.”

Ah.  No, not so much.

My roots are such a part of me, I am sure they are embedded in whatever I write.  But still, I stay far away from writing about this place or even setting stories in it — because I am a coward.  I am afraid to tell my truth about it.  It’s like not wanting to write about your sick, dysfunctional family members who are all quirky and sometimes wonderful and beautiful and whom you love very, very much in spite (because?) of all their heavy-duty flaws.

Coming to this small, Southern town over a year ago was (and is) a huge adjustment for me.  Hell, at one point even moving back to Atlanta was a huge adjustment for me, as I’d never even mentally prepared for the possibility of coming back to the South.  It’s a different world, and it’s fascinating and stunning and ripe with characters and meaning.

As I told F. a few months ago, “I love it, and I hate it.”  It’s past time I started to deal with it on paper; it’s probably a rich vein to mine.  I just hope it doesn’t feel like opening a vein to do it.

Speed

This one is simple, really.  I used to write fast and furious.  But for the past, oh, eight months, I am slow as molasses.  And unfortunately, I know why.

Cigarettes and coffee.

See, I used to write with heavy doses of both.  Then I quit the cigs, and the furious outdoor writing sessions, notebook on knee and cigarette in left hand, had to stop because sans nicotine they induced such cravings.  Suddenly coffee tasted weird, too, as if it only worked in conjunction with the other drug.  Now I can’t ever go back:  the smell of smoke nauseates me, and if I drink coffee on an empty stomach, I get a stomach ache.  So now all I need is to find a drug-free way to put on some speed.  Because I have too many ideas to be writing this slowly.

Characters in Desperate Straits

The water is never quite hot enough in my stories.  I think I am too soft on my characters.  I do like them, and sometimes even come to view them as friendly presences in my life over the long haul of writing the novel.  And honestly, who wants to do mean things to your friends?

But I am going to have to get over it and let really bad stuff happen to them more often.  I don’t think I’ve ever written a character in a truly life-or-death situation.  We could argue about the life-or-death scenarios they sometimes put their souls into, but that stuff doesn’t usually make for a gripping novel.  I want more action in there, more moments where a whole lot is on the line and we see exactly what these creations are made of.

I want to consciously take the stakes higher.  I’m wondering if it will be easier in a short story format because I’ll be spending less time with these “people” before I’ve moved on to others.

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Responses

  1. Great list! I can see lots of thought there and plenty of areas to explore.

    I think you’ll have a good chance to work on the speed issue during the workshop!

    And I agree about males – different species. Nice, but require study to understand 😉

    • LOL, you’re so right about the males, Merrilee. Fortunately, I appear to have an excellent opportunity for field study. 😉

      I did some speed-writing tonight, just to see if I could come up with ideas for a few stories, and the results were rather encouraging. Yay!

  2. I can tell you’ve put a lot of thought into your goals. I can hear you on the speed one. Sometimes it seems like I can pound the words out, while at other times I’m slow as a snail. Unfortunately, I don’t have the great excuse of quitting smoking or caffeine to blame. I’m just lazy. I find my best way to write is with a glass of ice cold water next to me in a cool room. I’m sure you’ll find a new way to do so, too.

    Oh, and I totally hear you on the whole guy thing. I don’t have a lot of contact with guys beyond my brother and my father. My friends when I was younger and even now are female. I’m fairly girly. Guys are a mystery, and I feel like I struggle more with getting them real than I do with females. Someday I’m going to indulge myself and write a story with a purely female cast – no guys at all!

    • I think the cool room sounds excellent, Chibi, as our AC is having issues and it’s already hot as Hades here in SC. But I guess it’s to each her own, really, and I just needed space to let go of the nicotine/writing association in my mind and body. 🙂

      There are some excellent novels and plays and movies that center around an all-female cast. Maybe I should try that idea out, too.

  3. Wow. You have some awesome goals here. I have trouble putting my characters in their hottest possible waters too. Oh sure, more than a few of mine have been in life-and-death situations, but that’s not always *their* worst fears. But I always tend to shy short of putting them against their worst fears, or giving them everything they could want and then ripping it away.

    Like you said, I become their friends in a way. I can be pretty mean to them, but some things seem just beyond cruel and I always hold back.

    • It is tough, Valerie. What we’re talking about really is playing God on paper, I guess. 😉

  4. Ooh, good ones. I totally identify with the humor aspect. I love funny, or even just fun books, with a bit of sparkly feel good magic. But when I’m writing, I always feel just shy of melodrama. Or, sometimes, less than shy of it.

    On rare, special occasions, I will find myself laughing out loud. But its definitely too rare for my taste.

    • Oh, Eliza, I hear you on the melodrama. I’m thinking now of when I handed a friend a manuscript to read, and she handed it back saying, “Does it have to be so emotional and dark? That doesn’t feel like you.” Um, yeah. She had a point. But the whole point of writing is to explore our whole selves, not just our outward personas; right? Maybe you and I need our melodrama for some reason…

      Still, if I’m the Goddess of the fiction work, surely I can decide to make it a more amusing world. 😉

  5. Aiming towards brevity and humour? Believe me, I can relate with you there… I find it much easier to be funny without meaning to as opposed to being humorous in the form of a short story or similar. And brevity, well, you know what they say – every first draft could use a twenty to thirty percent cut.

    • I’ve almost decided Brevity will not be one of my writing goals, as that’s really an editing issue, as you so rightly point out. Maybe after the course I’ll take myself on a 12-week editing safari, into darkest tangled rough-draft territory. 😉

      You have a good point on the humor, too, Nathaniel. I found myself thinking, is humor only great when it’s effortless? But then I remember stand-up comedians practice for hours, like musicians. Hmm…

  6. Great, specific goals, Meredith! Sounds like you’re off to a good start already. I look forward to hearing about your journey.

    Also, love the photo with “The south” in the background behind the vines–sooo typical of the South.

    • Thanks, Kathy! I do hope so. I’m nervous, but I’m already brimming with ideas, so the muse is apparently thrilled that I’ve jumped in and made the commitment. 🙂

      I’m glad someone “got” that photo. It is so true! I want to write an article about the infamous, invasive kudzu at some point over at the nature blog, because my family has some personal tales of it that led me to do some research (ah, it’s good to be curious), and I can hardly believe that Southerners planted it on purpose!!!

  7. The strange thing about brevity is that it can be totally different to editing. I recently had to reduce a short story ms from 9,000 to 6,000 words for a specific market. I went through and cut out all those unnecessary little words and repetitions. Nothing actually changed in the story but I much preferred the shorter version.

    • I wonder if the extra fluff I put in isn’t a kind of protection sometimes, like a way to hide what I really want to say under protective layers of word-blubber. That is an inspiring anecdote, Rosalind, especially the fact that after a 3000 word sweep-up, your final piece read better to you.

  8. Your goals are so specific and well thought out. I am still having a lot of difficulty coming up with my own.

    I understand what you mean about the Speed thing; I quit coffee and my mind just works so much more slowly than it used to.

    (I marvel at the kudzu too. I spent lots of summers with my grandparents in Atlanta and I just always thought it was fascinating.)

    • Alisha, isn’t it amazing the power of caffeine, which we only realize once it is gone?

      Those goals that are right for you will probably come to you when you are ready for them. And if not, maybe freewrite about what interests you in writing and see what comes up. Several of these came up in a mind-mapping session at the end of a particularly long freewrite, when I was feeling creatively limber. 🙂

      (I’ll hope you read that kudzu post whenever I finally get it written. I think I’ll be ready when I next get a chance to go out photographing the stuff — it’s only just now leafing out for the year. Maybe I need the visual stimulus.)

  9. Your brevity goal really struck a chord with me – I recently had some feedback from an agent which pointed out my tendency to throw in far too many conditionals and adverbs and so on, but it didn’t occur to me to consider that as an issue or interest! I will definitely be keeping that one in mind as I think about my goals, so thank you!

    Also totally with you on thinking my potential readers would be female. Don’t know why, really, but that’s definitely what I picture. 🙂

    • Davina, it is tough to cut right to the core of things for me, and it sounds like I’m not alone — and nor are you.

      Maybe we’re just meant to write for certain readers, and that’s that. But I still want to try and stretch, just to find out if it’s an arbitrarily self-imposed limit. 🙂

  10. You live in The South and you don’t want to write about it?!?! Southern writers are my favorites. I have Southern roots, but never lived there myself. But I love to read stories set there.

    • Um… now I’m feeling guilty. I love Southern literature, too. I’ve been awed and inspired by those writers my whole life. But have you ever considered how many folks Flannery O’Connor must have pissed off in her little town? (Just as a for instance.) 😉

      I’m working on it, I promise. Courage!

  11. I totally understand about the humor issue, down to getting the same response from people. I really believe humor is one of the hardest things to write well.

    Good luck! I look forward to watching you take these on. 🙂

    • Thank you, Ashley. I need all the luck I can get. I think I’ve set myself a tall order. 😉

      I agree with you about humor being tough. It’s so easy to imagine it’s, well, easy. Knowing it’s not just makes me have that much more respect for the writers who do it well!


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