Writing Quote: In the Air

I don’t often pick writing quotes that I disagree with (okay, I can’t say I’ve ever done it, to date), but this week I thought it was appropriate.  (10 Points and the House Cup to whoever can identify the thematic link between today’s Writing Quote and this week’s posts.  I don’t intentionally pick a theme each week, and many weeks I don’t have a consistent theme, I just blog about what comes up, but a lot of times I’m able to draw out some common threads from most of the week’s posts.  That’s one of my special powers.)  So, here’s today’s quote:

The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air.  All I must do is find it, and copy it.

~Jules Renard

On one hand, I agree that in principle, the story I’m writing “exists” – but not in the way Renard here suggests.

The idea that the stories we are writing already exist and that the characters about whom we write are real people with their own wills is a popular conceit among writers.  And though I mean no offense to writers who subscribe to this way of thinking, I disagree with it pretty strongly.  The characters I creat are just that: my creations.  They exist only in my head.  They have no independent will.  When I create characters, I try to give them the traits and qualities of real people, but ultimately this is to serve the story. Continue reading

Writing Quote: Not the Same

When selecting writing quotes each week, I often (though certainly not always) look for common themes in the posts of the week, and try to find quotes that reflect those themes.  Last week’s quote was a little random, in that sense, but this week’s is a bit more consistent with the emergent theme of this week’s posts.

I wrote a bit about this personality test we use in my MBA program called the Birkman, and I wrote about about trying to craft unique and interesting and nuanced characters.  And, on the Weekend Assignment, I wrote about writing “Fan Letters” and shared a few things about myself that you may not have already known.  The common theme in all of those posts isn’t too hard to tease out.  It’s that each of us is unique, and different.  We have different strengths and weaknesses, different histories and personalities.  Continue reading

Writing Quote: Eat Its Head Off

It’s that time of week, again: time for another dose of Writing Quotes.  I’ve quoted Isaac Asimov here, before, so I won’t belabor you with his biography or lists of accomplishments.  I’ll let the link to his previous quote do that.  So, what does Uncle Isaac have to tell us today?

You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.

~Isaac Asimov

It’s an important lesson for we writers.  We hear it time and time again, and yet it bears repeating, if getting published is our goal.  I, myself, am planning soon (as soon as I get a little time to address a large manila envelope) to send out that story I wrote.  And, when I have time again, I’ll be spending a little time working on a first (and very rough) draft of my next story (or two… I’m contemplating taking some of my old Friday Flash/Author Aerobics stories here and fleshing them out a bit).  It’s sloooooooooooooowwww going for me.  But that’s to be expected, under the circumstances.

Mostly, though, I picked this quote not because it’s such good advice (it is, but that’s not why I picked it).  Mostly, I picked it because I loved the metaphor embedded in this one: “never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer”.  Fantastic.

Happy Writing.

Writing Quote: Metaphors

Today’s writing quote comes from an author whose work I’m rather fond of (I’ve read several of his books, and they are very intelligent and articulate books).

Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space. 

~Orson Scott Card

Metaphors are one of those tools of style that writers have at their disposal, but few writers master their use.  In the wrong hands, a metaphor becomes a blunt instrument, good only for pounding the nails of common things, or worse, it becomes a cliché.  But in more practiced hands, they become as Lyra’s Alethiometer, revealing the truth of things in unexpected ways. Continue reading

Writing Quote: Neurosis & Emotion

Touching on the theme of fellow blogger/writer-in-training T.S. Bazelli’s writing prompt for last week, I’ve been thinking on the importance of emotion in what we write.  Perhaps that’s why this quote jumped out at me.

The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone’s neurosis, and we’d have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads.

~William Styron

Neurosis, itself, is a bit of a loaded term, implying mental disorder, irrational behavior, and bizarre phobias.  But I think there’s something to be learned from the deeper implications of Styron’s quote, here.  And that’s that a simple, happy, unchallenged life provides little by way of grist for the writer’s mill.

The raw materials of the writer’s craft are, first, words, and second, emotions.  Emotions are the stuff of human beings, and insofar as a writer can capture emotions with words, then a writer has the ability to create characters that are compelling and engaging.  And that’s not a feat easily done.

The point suggested here is simple: it’s easier to write about emotions when you’ve felt emotions.  And a good story – a story with compelling characters and a compelling plot – is a story in which the characters are not always happy.  Characters in such a state of that by implication have no challenge, no urgent need, no impetus with which to drive the story.  The fuel of the story is the character’s dissatisfaction, regret, pain, confusion, uncertainty, fear, love, obsession, passion, hunger.  Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention.  Need is the mother of plot – a character has to have an unmet need, and a character with an unmet need is a character with a complex emotional response.

So chew on that for a while, as you contemplate the midbook lull… what need leaves your character unfulfilled?  How does she or he feel about that?

Happy writing.

Writing Quote: Freedom

In celebration of the Fourth of July, for my fellow citizens of the U.S. (and also of Canada Day late last week), I thought I’d share a quote from novelist Don DeLillo, best known for his book Underworld, an epic about the Cold War.  Since it’s been a bonanza of independence days, this week, I thought I’d find a writing quote that muses on the theme of Freedom.  And here’s a good one.

Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.

~ Don DeLillo

This kind of touches on the whole idea that writers write because they have to, because that’s who they are.  But I like the take on it that it’s about personal freedom and identity and salvation.   In particular, the themes of freedom and salvation are very interesting, to me. Continue reading

Writing Quote: Getting the Edit

Today’s writing quote comes from one-time managing editor of Harper’s: Russell Lynes.  The story of writing goes, of course, that writers love their own work.  We’re simply enamored of it.  We have to be; how else do we summon the courage to expose it to the world, and even – horror of horrors – submit it to the whims of an editor to consider for publication.  It takes more than a thick skin; it takes a belief that what we’ve written is good and worthy of publication.

So, perhaps, it may come as no surprise that, unless we’re well acclimated to the idea, some writers may have a little difficulty hearing that what they’ve written… needs work.  Some writers might even grow a little hostile to the notion that their work is anything less than perfect already.  But here’s a quote to set you straight about that inclination, should you ever feel it welling up inside you:

No author dislikes to be edited as much as he dislikes not to be published. 

~Russell Lynes

Yes indeed.  If you’ve already gone through the trouble of submitting your work, and you now get feedback that the editor requires changes, consider the alternative. Continue reading

Writing Quote: The Classics

Today’s Writing Quote comes to us from the author of one of those old classic novels, Ethan Frome, as well as of many other works: Edith Wharton.  It is perhaps an irony that her quote concerns the nature of the classics of literature – considering that she was herself the writer of what may now be viewed as a classic.

A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.

~Edith Wharton

Allow me to translate:  The classics are the classics not because they belong to some vaunted category of “classic literature” – a circular defintion, of course.  They are classics because they are good.  They’re classics because they’re still relevant.  They’re classics because there’s still something to learn from reading them.

And this observation makes this quote the perfect compliment to a post from about a month ago in which I try to demonstrate the absurdity of dismissing genre fiction that happen to be classics because they are classics.  What makes them classics – and worthy of reading and admiration – is that they can’t be dismissed so easily!

It’s kind of my belief that every writer secretly hopes that his or her work will one day bear the label of “classic”.  I won’t lie: I secretly hope it for my work.  How awesome would it be, ten or twenty or a hundred years after my death, if school children were still reading what I wrote?

I give myself a 12% chance of achieving that level of classic-hood.

Writing Quote: I’m Not a Good Writer…

Today’s writing quote comes from well-known historical fiction writer James Michener.  Let’s dispense with the formalities, and get to the quote:

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.

~James Michener

Yeah.  What he said.  This quote interested me this week because I was thinking that, although I’ve gotten a little better at my first-draft, first-pass attempts at writing stories over the past several years, where I’ve really improved in my skill is in rewriting.  I’ve developed a more critical eye.  I can better diagnose what’s wrong with a story.  And I can prescribe a viable solution.  And I can write it.

This, I think, will be the skill that will most contribute to the potential I have for an eventual career as a writer.

Take, for example, the short story I will (hopefully) be sending off to a publisher in a few days for editorial consideration.  I wrote the original draft about three and a half years ago, give or take.  I thought it was a pretty good story, at the time, but I never sent it anywhere.  I picked it up again when Dear Wife encouraged me to take a story that I thought was in good shape and give it some revision to spruce it up a little and send it off.  We both expected this could be accomplished in the amount of free time I might have over a holiday month between semesters.

But upon actually rereading and considering the thing, I realized it needed a lot of work.  And I’ve put a lot of work into it.  It’s like a whole new story.  There was very little from the original draft that was immediately salvageable.  But that draft provided a good starting point, and new ideas fleshed the story out and made it much better, in my opinion.  The story I wrote 3-ish years ago?  It was unpublishable.  The story I have now?  May be the best piece of fiction I’ve ever completed.

This worries me a little about the new story I hope to start work on soon, “What Happened in August Valley”.  I’ll be writing this one from scratch, not working from an old draft.  (I have several old drafts of stories that I want to work on and rewrite, but I feel strongly about doing this one, first.)  So, whereas the story that’s going out this week went through 3 or more drafts (depending on how you count) this one is starting brand new from rough draft, and may only get a single revisionary draft, depending on my ability to get some good feedback.

Regardless… I think there’s a lesson here for my future.  I’m excited to be developing this skill, and hope to be able to continue to put it to good use.

Happy writing.

Writing Quote: Revelation of Meaning

There are many sides to writing stories – be they fictional or non (I personally prefer the fictional variety, as you may have gathered).  We write to entertain.  We write because we “have to”.  But we also write to elucidate some moral or ideal, to find meaning in what can sometimes seem a meaningless life.  Philosophical, no?  Today’s Writing Quote comes from philosopher and “political theorist” Hannah Arendt.

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. 

~Hannah Arendt

What is it about stories that catches the mind’s eye, and that causes us to pause and think more deeply about our own lives?  Is it the role of the writer to be intentional and persuasive in imbuing story with meaning?  Or should the writer be transparent, invisible in the story, allowing the tale to take its place and the meaning to be woven from those threads organically?

No answers, today.  Only questions.  What’s your take?  How do you approach meaning, moral, and purpose in your stories?  Do you often think about these things when you read stories?  Do they inform the way you live and think about life?  Do they make you reconsider your perspective?