Writer’s Mission Statement

writing

Every successful company has a Mission Statement. A good mission statement describes why a company exists.

One of the best is Google’s twelve-word Mission Statement: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” That says it all. No hype. No bravado. A simple statement of why they exist.

As writers, many think we don’t need a mission statement, but I say baloney. Of course we need one! We need a mission statement to print out and post on our wall, or on our desk, or on our computer screens. WHY are we writers? or editors? This statement isn’t about the type of writing we do, or what we hope to achieve with our writing. It’s a simple statement of why we exist, our raison d’etre.

As a challenge to myself, I decided to write my Writer’s Mission Statement. (I have an Editor’s Mission Statement already. It’s what guides my editing endeavors.) Here is my Writer’s Mission Statement:

“To observe the human condition empathetically and share my explorations in writing.”

Okay, so that’s twelve words. I tie Google. Pithy, I think.

What’s YOUR Writer’s Mission Statement? I challenge you to create one, and send it to me in the Comments section. I’ll do a follow up when I have enough submissions.

 

 

Plan to Fail, Then Move On

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Or as Fannie Flagg, actress, comedienne, author, once put it: “Don’t give up before the miracle happens.”

Writing is a grueling endeavor, often without guarantee of success. But if you write, you know this already. You write with the hope that, at some point, your efforts will pay off.

As author Will Self writes: “To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail – the disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content, and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short.”

Most importantly, however, Self writes:

It follows that to continue writing is to accept failure as simply a part of the experience – it’s often said that all political lives end in failure, but all writing ones begin there, endure there, and then collapse into senescent incoherence. I prize this sense of failure – embrace it even. … When anyone starts out to do something creative – especially if it seems a little unusual – they seek approval, often from those least inclined to give it. But a creative life cannot be sustained by approval, any more than it can be destroyed by criticism – you learn this as you go on. … No, this is the paradox for me: in failure alone is there any possibility of success.

You can read some fascinating thoughts on writing failure and motivation here, with insights from seven successful writers.

Margaret Atwood has inspiration for those of us who write and “fail”: “Get back on the horse that threw you, as they used to say. They also used to say: you learn as much from failure as you learn from success.”

fail

 

7-Step “Freytag’s Pyramid”

freytag_pyramid

 

Gustav Fregtag, a 19th-century German playwright, developed his 7-Step “Freytag’s Pyramid” for storytelling:

  1. EXPOSITION: the background, setting, characters, setting the scene
  2. INCITING INCIDENT: something happens to begin the action
  3. RISING ACTION: the story builds
  4. CLIMAX: the point of greatest tension
  5. FALLING ACTION: events that happen as a result of the climax
  6. RESOLUTION: the character solves the problem/conflict
  7. DENOUEMENT: French term meaning “the ending”

These are excellent guidelines for fiction writers, as well.

Before you begin writing, draw up an outline with these points. Know where you plan to go before you start writing. You can always change things along the way, but this will give you a game plan, or a road map, for where you plan to arrive.

As you outline, start out filling out each item in brief. Then, go back and begin fleshing out your ideas, always adding to these seven bullet points. Stay within these points, and your writing will remain focused, no matter how many detours you make within each point.

Within a novel, you might have several escalating points (rising actions), but only one Climax, and one Resolution.

The more you flesh out your pyramid, the easier your writing will come. You can add to or subtract from your pyramid at any time in the process, but always know at any given moment what each step contains.

Lowering the Bar in Editing?

rules

It’s the way of the publishing world, I hear. Not only for smaller publishers, but also for venerated ones.

Never mind the rules: if the author is consistent, then follow the author’s lead.

I want to scream.

I have worked so hard through the years to attain a high level of editing knowledge and expertise, in a variety of styles (Chicago, Oxford, MLA, APA, AP, etc.), and now so many of the rules of style are being ignored.

I don’t know why, but we editors are being told to “follow the author’s lead,” even if not strictly correct. I’m currently editing a book written using UK spelling, but U.S. punctuation. What the heck? Why the combination?

I’m not sure if this is a matter of convenience (most publishers don’t have a large in-house editorial staff any more), or lack of knowledge. All I know for certain is that the editors I worked with early in my freelance editing career were task masters who demanded that I know the rules of style inside and out. Today, those editors are being told by their publishers that such adherence isn’t necessary.

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This wouldn’t affect me so strongly, I suspect, if I weren’t so aware of how pathetic writing skills have become, particularly in journalism. Only today I came across the line, “A person may have ran through the school slashing or puncturing students with a knife or other sharp object, according to early reports cited by The Associated Press.” 

“May have ran”? Where is this reporter’s editor? And this isn’t an isolated incident. Daily, I read news items with rampant spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors. These aren’t just symptomatic of online journalism, either. I believe that people simply don’t know the rules, and don’t care.

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I’ve heard the argument that language is a living entity, and must change with the times. Baloney. Why are the rules now no longer sufficient or important? What has changed in the past few decades, besides less-knowledgeable editors and/or teachers/professors?

What gripes me is the change in long-standing rules: it is apparently okay to start a sentence with “And” now (CMOS says so; see my sentence in the paragraph above), and end any sentence a preposition with. As far as parallel construction and noun/verb agreement, well, and then who care?

My poor friend Meg Gardiner listens to my rants on a daily basis when we IM. She’s long suffering, and regularly advises me to breathe deeply or take a long walk when my blood pressure goes up. I love writing! I admire good writing. There are guidelines for powerful writing that should be followed. (As shown here, the rules from Elmore Leonard):

rules

I’m not just being a fuddy-duddy about this. Yes, I love the rules of the language, and think English is perhaps the perfect language, with its incredible pedigree derived from other languages. But it’s more than that.

As an editor, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what is right. It was hard enough to decide whether I was wearing my US or UK English hat, but now I have to decide whether I’m wearing my by-the-rules hat or off-the-cuff hat. It’s my job to make the reader’s experience as enjoyable as possible, by making the writing as clear as possible. This is becoming increasingly more difficult.

As Freddie Mercury so famously sang: I think I’m going slightly mad!

mad

How to Describe a Character

One of my pet peeves is authors taking the easy way out when describing a character.

Dan Brown makes me grind my teeth every time he describes a character. He’s a master storyteller, but I wouldn’t call him a great writer. Here’s one of his descriptions of Robert Landon, the main character in Angels and Demons (parenthetical comments are mine):

“Although not overly handsome in a classical sense, the forty-year-old Langdon had what his female colleagues referred to as an “erudite” appeal (whose quote? When did he ever hear that, when did ANYONE ever say that?)—wisps of gray in his thick brown hair, probing blue eyes, an arrestingly deep voice, and the strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete. A varsity diver in prep school and college, Langdon still had the body of a swimmer; a toned, six-foot physique that he vigilantly maintained with fifty laps a day in the university pool.”

Argh! How was this trip ever published? He goes on:

“Langdon’s friends had always viewed him as a bit of an enigma—a man caught between centuries. On weekends, he could be seen lounging on the quad in blue jeans, discussing computer graphics or religious history with students (of course he would! He’s so cool and hip and trendy!); other times he could be spotted in his (wait for it) Harris tweed and paisley vest (gag!), photographed in the pages of upscale art magazines at museum openings where he had been asked to lecture.”

By this point, I’m tearing out my hair. But there’s more:

“Although a good teacher and strict disciplinarian (of course), Langdon was the first to embrace what he hailed as the “lost art of good clean fun.” (Again, whose quotes and when was it ever said? If not, why the quotes?) He relished recreation with an infectious fanaticism that had earned him a fraternal acceptance among his students (in reality, they would have mocked him for trying, at 40, to be one of them.) His campus nickname—“The Dolphin”—was a reference both to his affable nature and his legendary ability to dive into a pool and outmaneuver the entire opposing squad in a water polo match. (Baloney!)

Those three paragraphs would work for an author’s notes about a character, but they never should have made it to the page in that way. First, because it’s dreadful writing, and second, because it is the author intruding into the story in order to describe the character. Otherwise, who else is giving that description?

Poor writers think it’s necessary to describe characters immediately upon first introduction. “Clive walked into the bar, wearing a dashing turtleneck, flannel slacks, and a woolen blazer. His dark hair was carefully parted, but tousled at the sides, a sign that, while he cut a dashing figure, he didn’t really care about appearances. He scrutinized the crowded bar, his piercing eyes searching for the beauty he planned to conquer that evening. He spied her at the teak-and-brass bar and sauntered over, his thin, athletic body weaving among other guests, oblivious to his own sexual appeal.”

Yes, you can retch. I’m recalling a scene from the Modern Family TV show, and writing a description. A purposefully awful description. True, we know what he looks like, and a bit about how he moves in his world, but the writing is pedestrian. It has no flair, and once again the author is intruding into the story.

On the other end of the spectrum, this is how a master describes a character:

“Sister Rolfe saw that the detective had just come in and taken up his tray at the end of the line. She watched the tall figure, disregarded by the chattering queues of nurses, as he began to move slowly down the line between a white-coated houseman and a pupil midwife, helping himself to roll and butter, waiting for the girl to hand out his choice of main course…. Her eyes followed him as he reached the end of the line, handed over his meal ticket and turned to look for a vacant seat. He seemed utterly at ease and almost oblivious of the alien world around him. She thought that we was probably a man who could never imagine himself at a disadvantage in any company since he was secure in his private world, possessed of that core of inner self-esteem which is the basis of happiness…. Probably he would be thought handsome by most women, with that lean bony face, at once arrogant and sensitive.”

That’s PD James in Shroud for a Nightingale, having one character observe the main character, Detective Adam Dalgliesh. I’ve gone through PD James’s Dalgliesh books and have underlined everywhere she describes him, and I was amazed at the paucity of instances where she has done so. Yet he is so vivid in my mind! Physically and psychologically, I feel I know what he looks like and who he is. Any description of him is from afar, from another character, never something he thinks about himself. It’s description, with judgment, given by another character. That’s why it works.

Michael Chabon, in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, has numerous excellent character descriptions. Here’s one:

“Menashe Shpringer, the criminalist working the graveyard shift, blows into the lobby in a black coat and fur hat, with a rattling of rain. In one hand Shpringer carries a dripping umbrella. With the other he tows a chrome caddy to which his black vinyl toolbox and a plastic bin, with holes for handles, are strapped with bungee cord. Shpringer is a fireplug, his bowed legs and simian arms affixed to his neck without apparent benefit of shoulders. His face is mostly jowl and his ridged forehead looks like one of those domed beehives you see representing Industry in medieval woodcuts.”

Ask yourself, why does this work? How does it differ from the Dan Brown examples?

Descriptions don’t have to be long and detailed. Simple line-drawings work, as well, as in this character description also by PD James in Shroud for a Nightingale:

“The door opened, letting in a shaft of light from the passage. Miss Angela Burrows jerked back the curtains, surveyed the black January sky and the rain-spattered window and jerked them together again. ‘It’s raining,’ she said with the gloomy relish of one who has prophesied rain and cannot be held responsible for the ignoring of her warning.”

I know instantly that Miss Angela Burrows would not be my first choice for a holiday companion.

As you read, study how various authors introduce and describe their characters. Notice the pacing of those descriptions in the book, when and where and how they occur. Learn from the masters how to do it artfully.

MobyDick

I’ll end with one of my favorite, by Herman Melville in Moby Dick:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Editor or Writer?

I’m torn these days. I desperately want to get back to my writing, but I must edit for a living. As an editor, I work with writers to help them fashion the best story or book possible. I read their work and see the magic, and the weaknesses. This is how I make ends meet. Born without a silver spoon, I must earn my living.

But as I work, I wonder. What is my writing like these days? Do I write as powerfully and succinctly as I suggest others write? Am I still capable of telling a compelling story? Do I have a voice that will seduce?

My creative juices are banked to overflowing. How I’d love to have the chance to stop my editing and my writing coaching and concentrate on my own writing. I delight in my job, but I’d love the chance to put earning aside and just live in my imagination for a year.

I know. That’s what all aspiring writers say. Real writers simply do it. So, am I a real writer, or only aspiring (after all these years)?

Tom has a friend who just self-published his first book on Amazon. The first in a series he is writing. My former boss, Cy, also self-published his first book (and I am thrilled that he has). I am helping to prepare a book for Via Lucis Press, which will require writing creativity as well as editing on my part. But it’s not “my” book.

My first novel attempt is a no-go. I’ve waited too long to finish it, and the world has moved past, technology has made the story obsolete, and I simply think it’s time to move on to something else. Every time I think I have the time to write, something else falls into my queue, and I’m off and running with my editing.

I write my blogs (this and my travel blog) to keep my writing skills flexed and honed, and that’s never wasted effort (from a writing standpoint, not necessarily a reader’s standpoint). But it’s time to do more.

As Benjamin Franklin wrote: Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing. I am doing the latter at the moment, but something inside is screaming at me to finally sit down and write. How I wish people still gave patronage to authors and artists and musicians, giving them the means to live while pursuing their art. Those were the days.

To be or not to be, that is the question. As 2014 approaches, do I make a vow to write, to carve out time every day, without fail, to do what I most desire? If not now, when? Livelihood is primary, but writing is vital.

I always congratulate my clients on completing their manuscripts, saying that they’ve climbed Everest and the rest is just editing. Will I, in 2014, congratulate myself?

“Strong” Female Characters

Wonderwoman

Meg Gardiner’s new book, The Shadow Tracer, has been receiving marvelous reviews this summer, deservedly so. Like her other books, this one is fast paced and riveting, with great pacing, wonderful characters, and a plot that twists and turns like a world-class roller coaster.

So why is it that I get irritated with some of the reviews of this book and others of hers?

Here’s one from Publishers Weekly about The Shadow Tracer: “Edgar-winner Gardiner’s second stand-alone (after Ransom River) boasts another of the strong female characters she’s known for and enough pulse-pounding action to satisfy the most avid thriller fan… packed with surprises and harrowing escapes.” 

Here’s one from the Associated Press about Ransom River: “Rory is a fantastic protagonist. She’s smart, quick-thinking, fiercely loyal and resilient. She’s the sort of action hero you want to see in movies: She can take multiple hits, and they just make her stronger.”

And here’s another from Library Journal: “Fans of the crime thriller genre will appreciate the well-drawn characters who plumb the depths of humanity and will connect with the especially strong female lead who perseveres to get back up more times than she falls.” 

Can you spot the common theme that irritates me? It’s the “strong female character” bit. Does anyone ever refer to male characters that way? Is Jack Reacher ever reviewed as a strong male character, or Adam Dalgliesh, or any other of the thousands of male protagonists?

Why is it that reviewers feel the need to point out the strength of Gardiner’s characters? True, the AP said that Rory is “smart, quick-thinking, fiercely loyal, and resilient.” Wonderful. “She’s the sort of action hero you want to see in movies.” Yes! But do we really need to know that she just gets stronger?

It’s as if, to be interesting to men, a woman has to be a strong character, versus a needy, fluffy, bon-bon-eating female. But that strong female must also be personable. Strong women characters get praised when they aren’t bitches, butch, unloveable, or unfeminine…that is,  when they counter the stereotype.

Think of strong women. Who do you picture, and what is your impression of them?

Nancy

Nancy Reagan, ridiculed for her steely resolve and protective demeanor.

mata hari

Mata Hari, seductress and spy.

Lizzie

Lizzie Borden, ax-wielding murderer.

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Joy Adamson, who raised Elsa the Lion.

Jiang Qing

Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong, aka Madam Mao.

Madeleine_lengle

Madeleine L’Engle, writer.

Each of these women were strong in their own way, and yet few people would immediately refer to their strength when describing them. Perhaps they would in the case of Nancy Reagan, but that strength would be mockable, something to set her apart from the more feminine women in her world. (The power of the Reagan family.)

If we don’t immediately think of actual women that way, why is it that female book characters are described in those terms?

“Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong,”  writes Sophia McDougall in The New Statesmen.

“No one ever asks if a male character is ‘strong’. Nor if he’s ‘feisty,’ or ‘kick-ass”’come to that. The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be ‘strong’ by default. Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. ‘Don’t worry!’ that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. ‘Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.’ Sometimes the phrase ‘not your typical damsel in distress’ will be used, as if the writing of pop culture heroines had not moved on even slightly since Disney’s Snow White and as if a goodly percentage of SFCs did not end up, in fact, needing to be rescued.”

I agree with McDougall’s entire premise: we devalue women if we refer to them simply as strong. Do they not matter if they’re not strong, but have other glorious characteristics and traits?

“What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character?” asks McDougall. “I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains. I want not to be asked, when I try to sell a book about two girls, two boys and a genderless robot, if we couldn’t change one of those girls to a boy.”

I had a meeting of my current book club today, and present with me were 11 strong women. That’s not the first adjective I’d use for most of them, but it wouldn’t be wrong. They wouldn’t be living the life of an ex-pat in a foreign country if they weren’t strong. But that’s not what defines them in real life, so why should it be so in fiction, or movies?

One of the bravest and strongest women I know is my Mom, who at the age of 19 married and moved away from home to follow her Army husband around the world for the next 25 years, sometimes raising their five kids alone while Dad was off at war.

My beautiful picture

THAT is strength! Yet, that wouldn’t be the first, second, or even tenth adjective I’d use for Mom. It’s simply part and parcel of who she is, of how she has survived and flourished. Why should it be any different for female protagonists in fiction and movies?