Friday, July 20, 2018

Friday Feedback with Erin Hahn: Using the Five Sense to Make Your Scenes Come Alive




You know how you can instantly love a person your best friend loves? 
Well, it's the same with your agent or editor: if they love a writer, you love them, which is much how I feel about Erin Hahn who is here today, and whose debut YOU'D BE MINE is coming April 2019 from the fabulous Vicki Lame (MY editor! ;)) and Wednesday Books.
"Seventeen-year-old Annie Mathers is the folksy heiress to a country music dynasty that ended in her parents' tragic deaths five years ago. Since then, she's been hiding on her grandparents' farm where she intends to stay. Indefinitely. That is, until superstar Clay Coolidge shows up on her porch and convinces her to join his summer tour. . . " 
You can read the rest HERE. It sounds OH, SO Good! 
Erin is here today with a totally stellar post on using the five senses. To tell the truth, the most I've learned about writing, I've learned here on my own blog from guest authors who have taken the time over the past five summers to share gems like this one. I plan to steal this post verbatim -- with credit!!! -- when I teach!

If you, too, appreciate the work Erin has done here today, please preorder YOU'D BE MINE and help spread the word! And if you can't preorder, ask your local library to preorder it in! Oh, and if you want to follow Erin on twitter, you can do so 
@erinhahn_author .


One of the earliest compliments I received from an industry professional about my writing was that my style was “evocative.” I’ll be honest. I had to double check the definition and definitely did one of those “Who ME?” after reading it, but it’s stuck with me because it’s certainly something I’ve always strived for. I want to transport a reader. I want them to see something in my book exactly as I see it in my mind. Obviously, that’s a fraught expectation. I mean, everyone gets something different when they read a passage. But every now and again I’ll hit home with a reader and it’s so satisfying.
Believe it or not I have a process for this. Not intentionally, mind you, but one day I happened to be guest teaching fifth grade and the teacher left me with a very shallow creative writing lesson. Little did he know, creative writing was my full time job! So I ran with it, figuring I could always apologize later if he hated the outcome (spoiler: he did not, in fact, hate the outcome).
Here’s what it comes down to: Whenever you are taking a reader some place new, take an inventory of what it feels like, smells like, looks like, tastes like and sounds like. It’s the fastest way to get them to that place and while you’re at it, it has the added benefit of bringing you there as well. And the deeper you are in your own scene, the better.
In my current YA, I’m writing about teens who work in radio and they go all over the place, as teens tend to do. At the moment, I’m crafting a scene where my main character, Vada, is on a “date” with an older coworker at a small music venue. Think dive bar. My audience is YA, so I can assume most of them haven’t spent a whole lot of time in dive bars, so my work is cut out for me.
Here is the initial introduction to the scene:
“The venue is a dark and dismal kind of place. Lots of people milling around, but there’s only one I’m concerned about- the one I shouldn’t have said yes to.”
Okay, so this is a typical first draft intro for me. I’m more concerned with plot and character development at this point, so I often will put in a “place holder.” Get it? PLACE holder? Sorry. Essentially, remind myself where I’m at, set the tone just enough to give me some realistic character motivation, and move on.
So let’s pretend, though, that my draft is done (oh how I wish). Now it’s time for me to read back through and start fluffing out the settings. I’ll go scene by scene, making sure each one is giving the reader a clear picture of where the characters are. Almost like if they just walked into the scene with you. What do they see? Only two people talking in a blank white space? Or in my case, one person musing in “a dark and dismal” kind of place? No good. Let’s go back.
First, what do they feel? Not emotionally, although that could come too, depending on how you draft. Right now, though, I’m concerned with purely physical feeling. Here’s what I’m feeling in my mind: Overly air-conditioned because of the show, so goosebumps. My shoes are sticking to the disgusting floor. I might be feeling sort of clammy at all the nasty germs around, since I’m like that. Maybe my character sort of is, too. Maybe I feel the rush of air as strangers push past me. Maybe I feel them shove and press against me. Maybe my face prickles hot with discomfort since I feel out of my element with this date I didn’t want.
Feeling. Got it. Let’s go back to my original line and layer some feels in.
“The venue is a dark and dismal kind of place. Lots of people milling around, closing in and crushing against me as they wrestle for a better view, but there’s only one I’m concerned about- the one I shouldn’t have said yes to. I rub my arms, cursing my thin hoodie. It’s doing nothing against the overly air-conditioned chill. I shift and my cheeks prickle as a man in front of me gives me a look of annoyance. “Sorry,” I mutter, sidestepping and encountering something sticky under my shoe.”
Okay. Feels. Got them. Is this done? No way. Let’s hit up taste next. What does Vada taste? Again, my Vada is barely 18. YA all the way. So if I’m 18 and I just came from a dinner to a bar for a concert, there’s a good chance I’m chewing gum. Or drinking Sprite. Or an ice water. I might taste the garlic from my dinner. Maybe I’m so anxious, I taste bile in the back of my throat. Unless your character is actively eating, taste might be tricky to define but it doesn’t hurt to ask. So how does taste fit in my excerpt? Let’s look:
“The venue is a dark and dismal kind of place. Lots of people milling around, closing in and crushing against me as they wrestle for a better view, but there’s only one I’m concerned about- the one I shouldn’t have said yes to. The garlic pesto I had for dinner churns and swallowing hard, I can taste it in the back of my throat. I rub my arms, cursing my thin hoodie. It’s doing nothing against the overly air-conditioned chill. I shift and my cheeks prickle as a man in front of me gives me a look of annoyance. “Sorry,” I mutter, side-stepping and encountering something sticky under my shoe.”
Okay, Erin, you might be thinking, panicking slightly at the sheer number of words I’m adding. Chill. We will still edit, friends. Trust the process. Breathe. Moving on to sound.
Sound is easy on this one. We’re at a concert. It’s loud, blaring, in fact. People are singing and shouting over the singing. Whistling, screaming, clapping. But here is where I think we can step back. It’s not necessary to list all of those. My reader knows they are at a rock concert. I don’t need to list every individual sound. In fact, it’s way better that you don’t because I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard each individual sound. I hear ALL the sounds at once. It’s a ruckus. Its more a feeling than a sound, isn’t it? Thrumming in your ears, pounding in your chest. So how do we incorporate that?

Alright, sound. Done. I should add that sound can sometimes be hard to pin down. Like I mentioned before, we don’t always separate individual sounds when we’re someplace, taking it in. It’s more natural to drown out sounds to hear what we need. I’ve been known to check out Sound Clouds on YouTube in the past. Or even Atmospheric stations on Pandora Radio. They work great with things like “Forrest at night” or “Busy city street” or whatnot. Give them a try!
 The last two are probably the easiest. Smell and sight. Let’s start with smell. At a concert, I’m smelling body odor and the sour scent of spilled alcohol and the skunky smell of pot… maybe too much cologne or perfume. Now that I think of it, concerts are pretty gross. But I digress.
Usually, I crave the pounding of the bass in my chest and the thrumming of the screaming music in my eardrums, but not tonight. Tonight, it’s too much to compute, my ears aching with the effort to hear the vocals over the racket of the crowd all around me. I stumble forward and my cheeks prickle as a man in front of me gives me a look of annoyance. “Sorry,” I mutter, side-stepping and encountering something sticky under my shoe.”

So our one line has turned into two paragraphs so far. Which is amazing. A reader entering into this scene is going to really feel like they are ENTERING into our scene and experiencing what Vada is experiencing. One last sense… sight. What do we see? I’m seeing couples kissing, frats guys pumping their fists and stage lights blaring and blinding. Of course, I want to see what VADA is seeing and she’s overwhelmed and feeling regret at showing up, so what she is seeing is tainted with that. She might not care about the couples kissing or the frat guys. She’s more likely getting a headache from the lights. Let’s try that.
Usually, I crave the pounding of the bass in my chest and the thrumming of the screaming music in my eardrums, but not tonight. Tonight, it’s too much to compute, my ears aching with the effort to hear the vocals over the racket of the crowd all around me. The neon stage lights flash and blind in an uncomfortable rhythm, confusing me. I stumble forward and my cheeks prickle as a man in front of me gives me a look of annoyance. “Sorry,” I mutter, side-stepping and encountering something sticky under my shoe.”

And that’s it. All our five senses. If you read carefully, you might have noticed that I changed her “I shift,” to “I stumble forward” somewhere in all of that. When I noticed that Vada was becoming distracted and disoriented, it made sense. I’m the author. I get to change it. 😊
So I’m going to edit real quick, reading my paragraphs aloud and seeing if I can cut anything or smooth it out.
“The venue is a dark and dismal kind of place. Lots of people milling around the small, raised stage, closing in and crushing against me as they wrestle for a better view. There’s only one I’m concerned about, however—the one I should’ve turned down—and he’s somewhere behind me at the bar, getting another drink. The garlic pesto I had for dinner churns and swallowing hard, I taste it in the back of my throat. My thin green hoodie is doing squat against the stale bar-air and I wrinkle my nose at the unsavory combination of sweat and skunk, despite knowing full well on a typical night, I would be loving this.
Usually, I crave the bass pounding in my chest and the thrum of screaming vocals, but not tonight. Tonight, it’s disorienting, my ears aching with the effort to decipher the lyrics over the racket of the crowd. The neon stage lights flash and blind in an uncomfortable rhythm and I stumble forward, my cheeks prickling hot, as a man in front of me glares. “Sorry,” I mutter, side-stepping and encountering something sticky under my shoe. Worst maybe-date ever.
There. I’m in a bar. Listening to a band. With Vada. Who isn’t having a good time, unfortunately. In my own writing, I would do something just like this with every NEW location I spend quantifiable time in. Obviously, if she came back to this venue later, I wouldn’t go through the entire list, but I might throw in a hint like, “only this time, the beer-and-skunk smell is gone” or whatever. You get the idea.
I should also note that I don’t always list details in two paragraphs right at the start (though, I might). Sometimes they get peppered through if I’m in a single location for a bit. As the author, you need to decide what is natural observation for your character. If it’s YA, they might not organically speak to the architecture of a place. If it’s adult, they might not snark about the smell. If it’s a picture book, they would be far more basic, sticking to familiar colors and textures.


Alright, so here we go! For my Friday Feedback submission, I offer you the above, now more polished, paragraph to give feedback on. Then, it’s your turn. Maybe take a section of a work in progress and run it through the five senses overhaul. Or write something new and explore how the scenes feel, sound, and smell!

And remember, Gae says if you are new to Friday Feedback, please read THE RULES (at the end of that post). And don't forget the only thing we ask for the time we put in here is that you order -- or preorder -- our books!!

Look forward to seeing you all in the comments!!

-->
            The venue is a dark and dismal kind of place. Lots of people milling around the small, raised stage, closing in and crushing against me as they wrestle for a better view. There’s only one I’m concerned about, however—the one I should’ve turned down—and he’s somewhere behind me at the bar, getting another drink. 
            The garlic pesto I had for dinner churns and swallowing hard, I taste it in the back of my throat. My thin green hoodie is doing squat against the stale bar-air and I wrinkle my nose at the unsavory combination of sweat and skunk, despite knowing full well on a typical night, I would be loving this.

            Usually, I crave the bass pounding in my chest and the thrum of screaming vocals, but not tonight. Tonight, it’s disorienting, my ears aching with the effort to decipher the lyrics over the racket of the crowd. The neon stage lights flash and blind in an uncomfortable rhythm and I stumble forward, my cheeks prickling hot, as a man in front of me glares. “Sorry,” I mutter, side-stepping and encountering something sticky under my shoe. Worst maybe-date ever.

xox Erin and gae

Friday, July 13, 2018

Friday Feedback with Nora Raleigh Baskin: Story is Story is Story - Six Tips for Writing Memoir



Hey campers,
Hope your first week of Teachers Write (or whatever else you did this week) was wonderful! Friday Feedback, for sure, is full of pure wonderfulness today. No, seriously, you'll see. . .
Ima do a really brief introduction because the post is long and chock-full of great information...

Suffice it to say, Nora Raleigh Baskin is guest hosting, and for those who don't know, Nora is not only one of my favorite writers, author of many award-winning middle grade and young adult novels, she's also been working on her memoir (and will be teaching memoir writing this fall at SUNY Purchase!) which she's been serializing on her blog, called WHY I'M LIKE THIS, and you can quickly see how poignant and beautiful her writing is there! If you want to subscribe to her blog you may do so HERE.  In addition to all that, she's one of the kindest, most deeply-feeling humans on earth and pretty much my BFF, to boot.  

So, today, she's talking about memoir writing, but to be sure, as the title says, Story is Story is Story -- so whatever you're working on, feel free to share an excerpt here. In the spirit of the theme, if you can choose an intimate and personal moment in your WIP (Work In Progress) even better! Look forward to seeing you in the comments!
And Nora and all my guest authors (and I!) work hard to write these posts, give you feedback, and share our thoughts with you, so please, please, please order Nora's books. If you can't afford to order yet one more book (we understand!), please call your local library and make sure they've ordered her newest titles, NINE, TEN: A September 11 Story and RUBY ON THE OUTSIDE in! 

Writing Memoir


            In some ways it seems only natural  for me, that after 13 semi-autobiographical fictional novels for young readers, I would now be brought back to writing the same stories, the same characters, the same themes, the same history, but this time with no barriers, this time as memoir.
            There is also no lack of irony here, as our contemporary world moves the line of non-fiction closer to what was once considered fiction, the line of fiction gets blurred as well.
            Yet here I find myself:  passionately drawn to telling another another form of the same truth, once again, for the first time.

            So why write memoir?

            I don’t think I can explain (at least my reasons) any better than I did in my actual weekly-serialized-memoir-experiment (http://www.norabaskin.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1182&action=edit) so if you are interested you can read this entry, and hopefully you’ll want to subscribe (just add your email) and join me on this journey.  I’d be honored to have you.
           
            But for this Friday Feedback I thought I would take you through some of the pitfalls and successes, some of the things I’ve learned over the thirty plus years I’ve been trying to figure out who I am through this crazy process of creative writing, both fiction and non-fiction.

So here goes:

            1. Story with a capital S

The same exact “rules” for writing fiction apply to writing memoir. In other words STORY comes first, which is just a little trickier when your hands are tied by having to  stick to the facts. (which by the way, you HAVE to do in memoir!)
            So by “rules” (knowing that rules are meant to be broken- but not until you know what they are, and are proficient in using them)  I mean:
            Beginning, middle, and end.
            Rising action, conflict, climax, resolution.
            Character development, motivation, meaningful dialogue.
            plot, tension.

            All those same annoying things you have to think about, even when you are free to make everything up.
           
Patty Dann, author of the beautiful book THE BUTTERFLY HOURS describes it like this:

"Writing fiction is like digging holes for posts in hard earth, steadying the posts, stringing the line, and then hanging up the clothes, with clothespins in your mouth, all the while watching out for rain.  With memoir writing, the posts are there, and maybe the line is stung, but you still have to figure out how to hang the clothes."          

            Mary Karr, the brilliant memoirist ,writes in her book The Art of the Memoir

“I once heard Don Lillo quip that a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.”       

            Bottom line, don’t be fooled. Good memoir writing is not easy at all.  In many ways, it’s harder than writing fiction. Interestingly it’s harder to tell the truth when you are stuck with the facts.

2. Have Some Distance
            While it is crucial (I believe) that one should write —as Patty Dann says—out of “Love or Anger” you are probably going to need a little (a lot) of distance from the experience, or from yourself ,to see clearly, to see other’s, to see without the cloud of too much LOVE or too much ANGER.
            I’m not saying that revenge isn't a good motivator, but you’ve got to be far enough back to see the forest through the trees. To see the whole picture. To not paint yourself a victim. To truly find the truth. It may taking writing the story, the same story over and over and over again for years, before this happens.
            But it will happen.
            Wait for it.

3.  You had a terrible childhood, yeah so what? Everyone has..or thinks they have.
            Some stories are truly tragic and we are drawn to them because we love
survival stories. Educated by Tara Westover and of course, Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls as well as Frank McCourt, and dozens of others. But there are quieter, less dramatic memoirs like Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell, about friendship.  It’s all in the language, the story telling, the observations. It’s not in the history.   
 
            One of the best learning experiences I had happened when I took a memoir writing course with Joyce Maynard at Sarah Lawrence College— and by the way, if you ever have the opportunity to take a class with her . . . do it! 
            We all had to read samples of each other’s work during the week-long intensive and one women wrote exclusively about being hit as a child. It was self-indulgent and pathetic. She clearly wanted the reader to feel sorry for her but what she achieved was quite the opposite. It was dark and humorless, and well boring.
            But I learned something very important reading her story: It really isn’t what happened to you (many people of a certain generation were spanked pretty severely as child) but how you perceived it.

Self-pity makes for a terrible book.

            We want to feel for the narrator, not feel sorry for them, so don’t write about your experience until have gotten over yourself.

            What insight, what meaning, of what importance is your story?

            Traumatic experiences don’t make great memoir writing, great writing does.  Your vision, your lens, the way you organize history to reveal something new. That’s a memoir. You are NOT writing an auto-biography, a list of events, a play by play of your life, not unless you are Johnny Depp or Hilary Clinton or Jane Fonda.

3. Friends and Family Beware

         
        If you are not ready or willing to sell everyone down the river with you, don’t bother writing. Or wait till they are dead.
            Or tell a different story.
            Or write fiction.
            You can’t protect your loved ones when writing memoir if you are going to write about them, any more than you should protect yourself. Joyce Maynard was brutally attacked by critics (mostly J. D. Salinger fans) when she wrote her memoir At Home in the World (https://www.amazon.com/At-Home-World-Joyce-Maynard/dp/1250046440)  She was called, amongst other things,  “shameless.” She will tell be happy to let you know today, that’s exactly what you have to be to write a memoir:  Shameless.…without SHAME.
            You have to be brave. Willing to look at yourself honestly. Willing to expose your pimples and warts. Take responsibility. See all sides.
In other words you have to be your best self while revealing your worst.

 4.  There Is No Absolute Truth

            Remember, whether in fiction or non-fiction even the antagonist doesn’t think he’s the bad guy of the story.  As I said before, revenge writing isn’t wrong (as a motivator) but twisting a story to get back at someone is. Twisting a story to make someone look BETTER than they are is also.. . well, wrong.

premature p.s. -- I am going to interject something here that may or may not belong in this exact spot. But when rendering dialogue in memoir it is, of course, impossible to remember verbatim words from yesterday, let alone twenty years ago. So, there is an unspoken acceptance that you will try to duplicate dialogue to the best of your ability, your most honest recollection, to get the gist of what what was said, if not the exact words.
            And there is an unspoken understanding that you may be completely full of shit.         
            Both.
            So do your best. And, as in fiction, keep dialogue brief, and meaningful, and as realistic as possible.

             You will write a different memoir today than you will write ten years from now. And that’s how it should be. Tell the truth the best you can in the time you are telling your story.
You are a truth-seeker, NOT a truth-teller.
            No one is the keeper of that.  Truth changes.  It is not static, it is not even true.
When you understand that you will write a better memoir.

5. READ Like There is No Tomorrow
            Lastly — because who am I to tell anyone anything about writing, let alone writing memoir?— There is only one true teacher: READING.
            Read what you love AND read what sucks.
            Read something great, and try to reach for that level of excellence. Analyze it. Dissect it. Look for the structure, the climax, the themes, the lyrical language, great word choice. What works? Why do you love it? How does the author play with time? Does he write in chronologic order or jump back and forth between past and present? Does she write in the child voice and grow as the years go by (Jeanette Walls), or is written as an adult looking back with that perspective and wisdom (as does Marry Karr)? Or a combination? 
            Most of all look for what the author has chosen to show the reader. Memoir is a manipulation. Of course it is. It has to be. It’s nothing less, but nothing more than your version of the truth. 

            Look for which scenes the author has chosen to put side by side. That is your color pallet and your brushes. (words are your colors)  Juxtaposition is crucial—that’s where the story lies. Between the lines.

A memoir writer is a master manipulator, but not an exploiter.

And then read some really awful memoirs (contact me if you need a list!) and you’ll  quickly realize: Hey, I can do better than that piece of crap!

            Look, everyone has a story to tell. They do. But you need to know WHY you want to tell your story and you have to tell it well. You have to write beautifully, specifically, meaningfully, with only salient details, and with heart. 

But write it down.

            Get it out on paper because no matter how many times you’ve regaled your friends at the dinner table with your interesting story, no matter how many years you’ve ruminated and spent processing your unique history, no matter how many hours you’ve spent in therapy,  it is very, very, VERY different when you write your story down.

            So trust the process.

            Something powerful, and maybe a little magical, happens when you let the memory flow from your brain, to your hands, to the tips of your fingers, and out onto a blank page. Smells you’ve forgotten, sounds you didn’t know you heard, things you didn’t remember seeing, illuminations and revelations will present themselves to you in ways you never expected.

So stand naked and go forth!


And now, since it is Friday Feedback, time to do some sharing and critiquing! If you aren't familiar with the RULES please read them HERE FIRST: http://ghpolisner.blogspot.com/2018/07/friday-feedback-where-will-your-spark.html

And here is Nora's excerpt from her Memoir, Closer to the Sun:


-->
          I missed my sister terribly. If I had ever felt whole, it would have been like having an arm cut off, or an eye taken out, but to be honest, at this point, I was pretty used to operating with fewer cylinders, less gas, a flat tire or two. I still had my bike, my body, and now, a whole dairy farm spread out in front of me. Cornfields to run through, a flat country road that ran along the river to explore, the town library where I could take out books as often as I could ride my bike there. And food, like ice cream, readily available.
            But Anne’s visits were hard for me. I can’t think of explaining it any other way, except for this: Imagine someone you loved very much and expected would be in your life forever suddenly dumped you, letting you know you were just about the most unlovable, worthless human on earth. However this person who dumped you, didn’t dump your sister. So every time your sister comes to visit, you know she is going to go back to be with the very person who didn’t want you anymore. But still wanted her.
            And then you would have it. Sort of.
            Until Anne’s mother dumped her, too.
            But not exactly.
            Because this is where stories can collide and can actually explode, showering down with shards of glass that cut and wound deeply but never reflect the whole truth, only slivers of it.
            My father will say that Jean had a boyfriend who was moving to California and didn’t want Anne anymore, so she set up a situation whereby he had to go to court and sue for full custody. And Jean will say that my dad wanted Anne to live with him, had more money and more resources, sued for full custody in family court, and won. My dad will say it was becoming so clear that Jean was an unfit mother he had to sue for full custody to protect Anne. Jean will say he dragged her through the mud, with lawyers and even the testimony of his new blond, perky wife, Barbara, and that she had no other choice but to move to California with her new boyfriend, Alvin. And have another baby.

            So after a year and half, Anne came to live with us on Springtown Road.


 - Nora & gae