Deeper into her Year of Writing, our author seeks feedback from people and advice books.
It’s funny to me how many authors bemoan the solitary nature of writing: how hard it is to forsake all society, to turn our backs on friends and family; how the isolation makes us a little ragged and churlish.
For me, the isolation of writing is one of its great attractions. I’ve never been much of a joiner to begin with, and friends of mine would probably agree that churlish is a good description whether I’m writing or not.
Still, however much I enjoy solitude, there comes a time when even I need to get out of my own head and bounce my work off of other people. Though many of my writing friends are in critique groups, even considering that kind of long-term commitment makes me claustrophobic and panicky.
Instead, I joined a small writing workshop that meets six times in 12 weeks, with the opportunity to submit up to 150 pages for critique.
Writers are a prickly bunch. We need a lot of advice, but we’re often not that great at accepting it. Typically, we’re far better at seeing the weakness in others’ writing than in our own. When we read anyone else’s story, we can see what works, what doesn’t work, and often why.
All that insight evaporates when we turn a critical eye toward our own pages. Even when we know it’s not really working — or perhaps especially when we know that — we hug that ugly baby even tighter.
Here, though, I find it’s energizing to use a draft that is still pink and raw from the birthing process to be reminded of everything I already know about what makes fiction work. Advance the story with every sentence! Reveal in action! Make every character want something! (Even if, as Kurt Vonnegut assures us, it’s just a glass of water.)
Knowing, of course, is not the same as executing, but seeing and hearing it again ahead of trying it again brings me that much closer to success.
One of the first conversations we had in the first session of the workshop was about favorite books of writing advice. Mary Kay pulled out her marked-up, dog-eared copy of a relatively new addition to the writing advice canon, Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me.
At the end of a discussion about managing multiple plotlines, she handed me her copy and said, “Read the part about flaming chainsaws.” Instead, I read the entire book, and promptly went out and got my own copy.
Have you ever noticed how many books there are that give advice to writers? You can fill a decent-sized library with all the volumes that attempt to explain writing, either to those who have no clue or to those who need some reminding.
(Many of them purport to give advice on both writing and life. It’s alarming to think that admitting you could use help with writing signals that you’re struggling all around.)
I have a couple theories about why there are so many advice books. One is that every moderately successful writer is grilled to explain how they did it, as every editor and agent is beseeched to reveal the key to their book-accepting hearts. And the other is that writers secretly hope that stacking these books up next to their laptop will somehow magically relieve them of the need to do the actual writing.
Now that I have my own marked-up copy of Thrill Me, I’ve also pulled my collection of writing-advice books off the shelf and picked up a few new titles suggested by friends. I know they aren’t going to do the writing for me, but I find it helpful to choose one from the pile and read a section ahead of starting to write.
I’ve had my copy of Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction for 20 years. Seeing a photo of it that I posted, she noted that mine is a fourth edition, and the ninth edition is in the works. Perhaps it’s time I upgraded, but then I’d have to re-highlight. I like it for the extended excerpts and practical commentary.
Even older is my copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a funny and down-to-earth book that is written as though you, the reader, are sitting in her semester-long seminar.
My favorite feature of How Fiction Works by James Woods is that the top of every right-facing page contains a synopsis of the discussion at hand, such as “Grounded Skepticism,” “Absence in Characterization,” and “The Myth of Solid Characters.”
Madison Smartt Bell, a local author and writing teacher, gave us Narrative Design, which is worth studying for its methodical, structured dissection of a series of short stories in terms of plot, character, tone, point of view, and so on.
My stack contains a bunch of others; I think it’s helpful to find a few that speak to you, that touch on the issues you know are your personal trouble spots. Really, it’s all good advice.
Now, to apply it.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics Circle, and writes a monthly column and reviews regularly for the Independent. She is chair of the 2018 Washington Writers Conference and president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association.