Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash
A quick Google search for ‘writing advice’ tells me there can’t be much left that hasn’t already been said. Nobel Prize winners offer tips. Forty experts tell beginners what to do. Bestselling authors give us insight into their creative processes. And so on, ad infinitum. Then there’s that perfect book, half craft, half writer’s memoir: Stephen King’s On Writing. If I could only have one how-to manual on my shelf, it would be that one.Where does this leave us, then? What guidance can I, a debut novelist and writer of flash fiction, possibly offer the world, or the emerging writer? I’ve thought about it over and over, and finally came up with two words: Be fearless. We know writing takes work, and skill, and talent, and perseverance. There’s the old ‘Butt-in-the-chair, honey!’ mandate (with its cute acronym) — a writer’s corollary to the athlete’s ‘Just Do It’ mantra. You want to run? Run. You want to write? Write. There’s something so plainly tautological about it all. And there can be beauty in tautologies.
But I think fearlessness is the single quality we as writers need to cultivate, and I mean this in multiple ways.We need the bravery to pour our emotions out, spilling ink onto paper with a little of our own blood mixed in. That’s no small trick. We need the courage to send our words into the world, knowing that once we do, a part of us is gone, floating in the public sphere, no longer under our control. If one accepts Roland Barthes’ notion that the author is dead, we authors must embrace the concept that we’re killing some portion of ourselves the minute our work leaves us. And, of course, we need the self-esteem and thick, carapace-like skin to hang on and persist when the inevitable rejections hit our inboxes. Believe me, they will hit — hard. A bland form rejection from an agent or editor can carry all the pain of bludgeon to the face, a direct smack to our very soul. Everyone who writes, or who wants to write, requires a ring fighter’s determination, a Rocky-esque willingness to go the distance, and to keep going. Being fearless also takes us in new directions, allowing us to experiment with previously unknown forms, new characters, and diverse points of view. One of my favorite things about writing flash fiction — tightly condensed stories often under 500 words — is exactly this: Within the space of a day, I can be a cranky old man on a front porch in Mississippi, a young housewife, or a sneaky feline. Fearlessness is a gift, a license to try something different and liberate ourselves from any habitual ruts. And it need not be limited to our writing lives. We can extend it to our whole lives: to our relationships with ourselves and others, to our careers (and the changing thereof), and to how we interact with the world. Finally, we need to forge some armor of another sort — the kind that protects us from dissatisfied readers. It’s useful to remember that old John Lydgate saying about not being able to please everyone all of the time. Every once in a while, our words may not even reach the point of unpleasing, instead inspiring far less positive reactions. Still, they’re our words and our thoughts, and we have to steel ourselves against ugly feedback. (Hint: read your reviews, or not. Then go back to doing what you do.) When I teach writing classes, the very first thing I tell my students is to prepare for rejection and failure. Both are going to happen, sometimes much more frequently than we’d wish. The rejection and failure aren’t the focus, though; it’s what we do afterwards that counts. And what we, as creators, should do afterwards is simple: get up and do it all over again. Would I call myself fearless? Would I use that label? I don’t know; I haven’t walked through the world with a superhero cape on my back. I do know that others have said this about me, starting with my first professor in graduate school twenty years ago. That man is gone now, and I can’t pick up the phone and say, “Hey, guess what? I believe you.” So instead, I write, a little or a lot every day, and try to live up to the descriptor. I try to fear nothing, even when that seems impossible. Maybe you were expecting a writer’s user manual. A list of do’s and don’ts full of perennial tips like ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘avoid adverbs.’ Something along those lines. But the best advice I can give, and — in my mind — the only advice worth its salt, is encapsulated in two words. Be fearless. Then sit back and watch what happens. I have a feeling what happens will be good. Be Fearless/Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash
On the left subject side is “Sergio Agüero.” On the right is “scores.”The verb, to score, can act as an intransitive verb that needs no object to which to do the action, or it can function as a transitive verb, where the verb takes an object to which the action is done. So, if we change the sentence to “Sergio Agüero scores goals,” it can be diagrammed with the straight line, with a second vertical line placed after the verb. The direct object is on the same line as the noun and the verb. Diagrams become more complicated with the addition of words that modify other words in the sentence. Adjectives modify nouns, so in order to indicate an adjective that is modifying the subject, draw a diagonal line and write the adjective(s) on the diagonal line(s). Possessives act like adjectives and are indicated in the same way. On the predicate side, if adjectives are used to describe the direct object, draw diagonal lines to indicate those adjectives below that part of the diagram.
Manchester City’s brilliant Sergio Agüero scores many creative goals.Here, “Manchester City” is the possessive. “Brilliant” is the adjective. And “goals” is the direct object of the verb, which itself is described by the two adjectives “many” and “creative.” When constructing sentences with direct objects, the item to which the action is being done may itself be affected by whether another person is also interacting with the object. For example, “You may give a gift to your friend,” in which “gift” is the direct object that is being given to “friend,” which functions as the indirect object. Thus the verb “to give” takes both a direct object and an indirect object. The indirect object would be shown on a sentence diagram by a diagonal line coming off the verb. Sometimes, rather than an indirect object, however, that action may be further modified through the use of a preposition. It is a modification of the verb. For example, in modifying this sentence, observe what the preposition is doing:
Manchester City’s brilliant Sergio Agüero scores many creative goals against other Premier League teams.Here, the preposition “against” modifies the verb by indicating that the action is done to something, but it has an impact on the verb through what is called the “prepositional phrase.” To indicate a prepositional phrase, write a diagonal line off the verb with the word “against” on it. The object of the prepositional phrase is “teams,” and the adjectives that describe teams are the adjectives “Premier League” and “other.” Sentences can also contain more than one subject, or there can be more than one verb. I looked to literature for an example of a more complex sentence, one that I must admit took me a while to break down so that I understood how each word was functioning within this sentence from P.D. James’s The Children of Men.
Western science and Western medicine haven’t prepared us for the magnitude and humiliation of this ultimate failure.Here there are two subjects — Western science and Western medicine — and two objects of prepositions, which themselves have a prepositional phrase that modifies them. Consider this diagram of the way I parsed James’ sentence. To diagram this sentence, I used a dotted line to indicate the conjunction — “and” — that connects the two nouns. The verb is followed by a direct object. The prepositional phrase that begins with the preposition “for,” has a double object of the phrase with “the magnitude and the humiliation.” Again, a dotted line is used to indicate the conjunction. That prepositional phrase is itself modified by the prepositional phrase “of this ultimate failure,” which is diagrammed by drawing a diagonal line off the double object. Sentences can be further complicated with the addition of subordinate clauses, independent clauses that are connected with conjunctions or punctuation, or declarative sentences and multiple other examples where some part of the sentence is unspoken. And the more complex the sentence, the more complex and beautiful the diagram that maps the sentence. It’s why Call Me Ishmael’s collection of postcards, which contain the opening sentences from twenty-four great works of literature, make a great gift for language lovers. The sentences themselves are revered for the beauty of their construction, choice of words, and rhythm created when they are read out loud. Seeing them as multi-layered diagrams becomes another way to appreciate the geniuses behind the words.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the difficult balance an author needs to strike between writing what we are familiar with, and therefore helping to unsure an authentic voice, and creating characters totally apart from ourselves in settings we may never have visited.The former might seem easier and the safer route to go. “Write what you know;” it’s a familiar refrain and popular advice given to aspiring writers. But even that can be fraught with difficulty. In writing characters, places, and events from our own lives, we can all too easily fall into the trap of sharing too much detail. When setting a novel in New York City, where I live, it’s critical that I don’t mention every restaurant and boutique name that I frequent. When I find myself writing more of a guidebook to New York City than a novel, I ask myself: Is that extra detail propelling the story forward? If not, it should be cut. I certainly don’t want to limit the audience for my books to readers who live within a ten-mile radius of me looking for a great hat store. On the other hand, there is value in sharing the nooks and crannies of a setting we know intimately well. It is the ultimate way to invite the reader to join us in the pages. Reading fiction is nothing if not an escape, and the more specificity provided, the more easily a reader can Photoshop themselves into the novel and feel the humid air, taste the freshly picked tomato, and smell the lavender — whatever atmosphere the writer is trying to suck the reader into comes alive the more detail we give. A quick anecdote. In my latest novel, The Intermission, a critical scene takes place at a Chinese restaurant on First Avenue called Wa Jeal. This would be a case of providing too much in the minutia department. It didn’t matter that it was on First Avenue and it certainly didn’t matter what the restaurant was called. The only upshot of providing that detail were the numerous texts I got from local friends: Is Wa Jeal really good? What do you order there? Do they deliver? Yeah… you get the idea. Setting is not the only trap where writing what you know can lead to extraneous detail. Too often we as writers like to share experiences from our former professions — probably because we are scarred by them. There are a lot of lawyers-turned-writers and much as we may want to tell our readers about the gloom and doom of law firm life, from the tedious document review at three A.M. to the hours spent waiting in the printing office for four-hundred page contracts to be bound, we need to remember: there’s a reason we switched gears. Being a lawyer was boring! And so is writing about it. In The Intermission, I attempted to strike a nice balance between writing what I knew and writing what I wanted to know about. I refused to make either of my husband and wife pair attorneys. Instead, I made Jonathan a hedge funder — a world that is somewhat elusive to me but is prevalent in my hometown of New York City. For Cass, I decided to put her in the world of Broadway marketing. I love theater but knew very little about the behind-the-scenes making of a show. So I was able to bring my passion for the stage to the novel but also explain the mechanics of marketing a show in outsider-not-insider terms. Likewise with the plot. Half the novel is set in New York, but half the story is in Los Angeles. I’ve visited LA many times but don’t know it nearly as well as my hometown. Having a split-setting kept my overflow details in check. I needed to make sure LA came alive just as much as New York did in the book. Not overwriting what I know continues to be a struggle I face as a writer, but I’m certainly aware of the pitfalls. And I welcome reader feedback on the subject, as that is truly the test of whether I’m striking the proper balance. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash