by Charlie Price
The more I attempt to write well, the greater respect I have for the craft and the greater fear I have about trying to sensibly discuss it. Occasionally I read an inspiring book like MAKING SHAPELY FICTION by Jerome Stern that details the craft of writing so beautifully, I’m inspired to stop reading after a segment and practice the conceptual nuance he’s discussing. Once in a great while I stumble on a useful and encouraging non-fiction like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird or Stephen King’s On Writing. Such books are gifts.
Beware of Helpful Criticism
Sometimes a writer will meet an editor or agent or teacher or friend who understands what is being attempted and offers suggestions that feel effective when applied. That’s another bonus. But I have met many writers who have been hurt and in their opinion, at least temporarily damaged by what purports to be “helpful” criticism.
Most published authors have developed their own particular, sometimes idiosyncratic practices, their own techniques, their own methods for accessing imagination. All of us have opinions about what works best -- for us. Writing is art. There are not and should not be rule-laden ways to do it. What works for me or another writer may be useless to you.
Satisfy the Writer
Each writer deserves to decide what pleases her and go about learning how to do that to the best of her ability. Other people can help us understand what is effective for them as a reader, but we must learn how to satisfy ourself first. There is no substitute, no class, no workshop more effective than actually writing, trying something, succeeding, failing, making adjustments. A writer has to be led by his/her own quixotic learning process. This is true whether you get an MFA education, go to expensive writing conferences, or chip away alone in your attic. Other people’s pieces of advice are their OPINIONS.
No matter how highly credentialed the advisor, you can choose to accept or not. If you find the advice inspiring and you can’t wait to try it, great. If you find the advice deflating, if it robs you of energy or shakes your confidence, ignore it. You can evaluate its relevance later, possibly years from now.
I am always very careful whose suggestions I accept. That is especially necessary for a new writer. If you like someone’s prose or poetry, you may want to follow her advice. But you might meet another writer, an agent, an editor, a teacher who is very willing to offer advice --- and how would you know whether you respect his or her judgment? How would you assess the value of his opinion? You might wind up getting steered away from your own talent. A writer has to become discerning. Has to learn from others and at the same time, be the steward of her own singular writing goal and talent.
Use Your Reading Tools
I ask for and receive help from my therapist/artist wife, a savvy and voracious reader. I gladly ask my editor whom I know and trust from hours of work together. I ask for and receive help from my writing group who I similarly respect and trust. Beyond that, I have a few learning methods that usually work for me.
If I’m reading and find myself annoyed or wanting to skip ahead, I’ll study what it is in the writing that has generated that irritation so I can learn to avoid or minimize it in my own work.
Conversely, when I find myself reading a book that knocks my suspenders off, I analyze what it is about the author’s writing that I find so enjoyable or effective. This passage dis-suspendered me recently. From Shiela Turnage’s THREE TIMES LUCKY .
I stood up straight, the way Miss Lana taught me, and draped a paper napkin over my arm. “This morning we’re offering a full line of peanut butter entrees,” I said. “We got peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter and raisins, and a delicate peanut butter/peanut butter combination. These come crunchy or smooth, on Wonder Bread, hand-squished flat on the plate or not, as you prefer. The special today is our famous peanut butter and banana sandwich. It comes on Wonder Bread, cut diagonal on the plate, with crust or without. What can I start you with?”
“The special,” he said.
So, among many things, when I read this, I see the author fully engaged with the character. The author takes her time with the humor. The customer choosing the special is like the punch line. The repetition and rhythm of the language draws us further into the scene. The author illuminates the character by showing the girl dealing with a universal quandary: someone trying to do her best with limited resources. As a reader, we can hardly keep from imagining the kind of café that might possess such a menu since not every bistro offers hand-squished sandwiches. The author is carefully choosing what is revealed, not telling us everything, but involving us as we fill in details and picture how we might react to this situation. The whole thing is fresh, surprising and funny.
Recognize Individual Taste
ANYTHING and EVERYTHING can be written about in a fashion that is educative and entertaining. Unless some novel turns out to be just too gory and gruesome, it is almost never the “content” that puts me off. I am engaged by economical prose that paints pictures in my mind and characters that I believe exist in our world. I thrill to characters that possess qualities I admire or fear, characters that face familiar challenges in atypical ways. As I read, I get a chance to briefly live someone else’s life! But, hey, that’s me.
Unless a piece seems careless or sloppy, I don’t usually have a thought about quality. I know what I like. I rarely feel qualified to adjudicate the merit of someone else’s work. One person’s drek is another person’s best seller. Who’s to say in this multicultural multifaceted world? It’s a matter of taste. Arrogance can often masquerade as expertise.
The single tool I use most often in writing a new story is visualization. Want to access imagination? Surrender your thinking and begin seeing. Seriously. Pretend like you’re watching a movie. My strategic mind loves to reason, validate, sequence, and control. My artistic mind loves to look around, daydream, free-associate, and wonder. In that artful mind I can look through the computer screen as if it were a window!
As a result, I don’t usually “think” my way into writing (thinking is for later in revision.) I consciously turn off certain rational brain areas and turn on others, a bit like a self-hypnotic command. I get quiet, take a slow breath. I SMILE. I drift toward a consciousness simultaneously relaxed and alert. I let go any personal concerns for the moment, let go of time, become ready to be wholly involved. For me, this consciousness is similar to light meditation or similar to how I am when I’m engrossed wading a river and fly fishing or when I’m playing guitar, listening to other musicians, and loving the music all at the same time. I practice reaching this relaxed alertness so I can imagine more seamlessly, more deeply. Maybe it’s like baking chocolate chip cookies and setting them on the windowsill to lure a muse.
Visualize Your Story
When I’m ready (and usually when I do these things I’m kind of itching to get started) I look through my screen into the world beyond – into the noisy restaurant, into the dense foliage, into the abandoned Zócalo, into the alien hive, into the taxi’s backseat, whatever, wherever. I picture people arguing, or someone committing a crime, waves sliding into a beach, spaceships and dens of iniquity, planes landing on a desert floor, bank managers’ offices and posh apartments and pee-stained dumpsters . . . the whole magilla.
You name it, I can see a version of it and so can you, if you don’t think too hard. Take a breath. Ease up a little. Your mind will happily picture what you ask. Bigfoot wearing a propeller beanie climbing the side of a dirigible? You got it!
Want to write a scene about a teenage girl wary of a strange boy’s approach. Relax and watch it. Where is she? What’s she doing? What does the guy look like? What does she notice about him? Is she welcoming or suspicious? Can you tell by the way she’s standing? And off you go if you stay relaxed and alert to the scene you’re witnessing.
Allow Yourself to Cringe
The second tool I use to improve writing is an emotional reactor, a cringe. Some writers may call this their “ear.” I work hard at developing this flinch that warns me when I’m going over or under the top. I also read my work to my wife and selected writers who wince on my behalf. Often, and I know you’ve heard this, I have to cut what I think are BEAUTIFUL words because they wreck the rhythm of a sentence.
For example: “That spring the moon rose like a huge orange hot-air balloon over the Sierra Nevadas, so bright we could see our shadow, too spectacular to be real. In the moon’s apricot glow, Harp believed she could see well enough to jump off the train tracks at the last second. You could blame the moon, but blame ignores the mystery that surrounds us like the air we breathe. The moon might have warned us, but it remained silent, glorious, in what we now remember was a chill black sky.”
After multiple cringes, this is what currently remains.
“That spring the moon rose like a hot-air balloon over the Sierras. In its apricot glow, Harp believed she could see well enough to jump off the railroad tracks at the last possible second. The moon might have warned her, but it remained silent, glorious, in a chill black sky.”
You would probably have made different changes or scrapped the paragraph altogether. That may still happen as I continue to work on this piece. I read my work aloud and my cringer tingles at me. As poet Kathryn Gessner has said, “See it to write it, hear it to revise it.”
Our early writing attempts may be pretty rough. That’s common. We gradually learn to follow our personal compass. Each of us has the duty and the prerogative to keep assimilating useful information, writing, and revising until we learn how to say exactly what we want to say, in exactly the way we want to say it.
What a pleasure to paint with words, sculpt with words, create a melody with words that leads us farther into the infinite learning process. Sure, we get frustrated, but that very annoyance often gives us the energy to seek out the next skill we need to better apply our craft. Too long a list, too involved a description, too clumsy an adjective, too many pesky clauses, and we begin fiddling till we get the sentence or paragraph polished to our satisfaction.
Serious focused work is never wasted. Be it book or poem or story or letter, graceful and lyrical, or blunt and terse, or cryptic and mysterious, just like reading seriously, writing seriously teaches us to write still better.
We often start our career by trying to write like someone we admire. We proceed, honoring the craft, learning intensely and developing our own sense for which advice to cultivate and which to ignore. After a lot of practice, we end up writing like ourselves. Pretty good for a quick ten thousand hours.
About the Author
Young Adult author Charlie Price has lectured at New York’s New School Forum on Writing for Children, has given SCBWI workshops in Asilomar and northern California on Creativity, Writing Process, Pacing and Revision, and has been featured in the Shasta College Distinguished Writer Series. Last November he presented on Mystery Writing at the National Council Teacher’s of English/American Library Association in Las Vegas. He will be writer-in-residence in Fairhope, Alabama, beginning January 2014.
His fourth book, DESERT ANGEL, immediately earned a starred review from Kirkus and made the 2012 Best Book Young Adult list and the Junior Library Guild Selection shortlist. A major television/film company bought its option.
His fifth book, Dead Girl Moon, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, comes out October 25th. Dead Connection and Desert Angel have also been bought by Random House, London, UK, and will be translated for world distribution. Thierry Magnier, Paris, has published all four books in French translation.
Raised in Colorado and Montana, Charlie graduated from Stanford in the late 60's and has lived in Italy, New York City, Oakland, and Mexico before settling in Northern California. From street schools in Bedford-Stuyvesant, to locked psychiatric units, to Academic Dean in a therapeutic boarding school, he has worked with adolescents and adults in trouble since the early seventies. Currently he consults and coaches for public and private agencies.
Charlie has been delightfully married for the past thirty years and, in spite of abundant flaws, he's a decent guitar player, fly-fisherman, and free throw shooter. He currently lives on a river in Northern California.
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About the Book
A taut thriller about Angel, a 14-year-old who is pursued by a man who has a deadly need to silence her.
In a keenly evoked California desert setting, Angel desperately seeks to escape. Inadvertently, she finds help with a group of caring Mexican-American neighbors, who refuse to let her face her nemesis alone. A loner, Angel’s been homeschooled by a meth-addict mother who has hooked up with a “long string of abusive boyfriends picked with the accuracy of a heat-seeking missile.” Her latest, Scotty, is a doozy, and when Angel finds her mom buried in the desert, he realizes she can put him behind bars. A hunter of contraband, he proceeds to use all his wiles to keep her quiet. Neighbor Abuela makes a plan to help her escape, resulting in the entire family becoming targets. Angel struggles with trust, guilt and maintaining her focus even as she is frightened to death. Suspense never lets up, as the third-person narrator monitors Scotty’s pursuit when Angel doesn’t. Kids and their teacher at a Head Start classroom provide a sense of normalcy and yet are clearly potential victims, upping the ante even more. The small, decaying towns, the Salton Sea and the desert heat provide a vivid backdrop for the unfolding drama. Angel is a tough heroine who needs help but knows if she accepts it, she is risking other lives, too.
Relentless, heart-stopping suspense. (Thriller. 12 & up)
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