June 24, 2016

Classing Up My Writing

The online class I'm taking with Gotham Writers Workshop is more than halfway through, and it's serving the intended purpose of helping me think about short fiction and generate new writing. Granted, having a deadline to submit a story for critique didn't save me from excessive procrastination, but eventually it did force me into several long days of writing. It's been a while since I've been deeply engrossed in a project, and I was happy to be back in that space.

I finished my story on time, and I'm pleased with how it turned out. Receiving feedback from my classmates was, as always, a thrilling and nerve-racking experience, and I spent the week constantly refreshing the class website to see if anyone new had commented. The students in our group bring a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives to their thoughtful critiques, as well as to their stories, and it's been fascinating to see how everyone reacts to each other's work. The feedback for my story gave me a lot of information about what resonated with people and what didn't work, and it will all be useful when I revise this story after the class is over.

Now, though, I have to write something different, because my second turn at the workshop is in two and a half weeks. So far I have no solid ideas for my next story, but I remain overly confident that the approaching deadline will spark inspiration soon enough. I may produce something promising in one of the short writing assignments we have for class each week, though more likely a decent idea will occur to me at some random moment. If I get desperate, maybe I can complete one of the unfinished stories from my teenage notebooks.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sarah S. Davis of Book Riot shares her experience of growing up as the English teacher's daughter: "I was cocky in English class, slaying the classic white male authors and tossing around literary jargon I'd gleaned from my father's theory books in his office. I thought I knew everything. I didn't."

June 17, 2016

Fear Itself

I'm aware that the earliest examples of my childhood writing were fun because they involved cute drawings and hilarious story concepts. Now that we're into the high school era, I hope nobody minds that it's all death and angst. I was prolific during high school, and most of my work from that period has been preserved, so we're going to be here a while.

While the Steno notebook I reported on last time is nearly all stories (or at least, story beginnings), the next one contains quite a few journal entries mixed in with the fiction. Among the raw adolescent emotions on display in these, there's the ongoing pain of that unrequited love I mentioned before: "When I am away from him I am seized with terror, and I imagine that he is hurt or dead." Also of note is the admiration I express for a friend's writing, coupled with doubt over my own: "She showed me her poems and stories all the time, and they were so good that I knew she would think mine were pitiful. Next to hers, they were."

At other points in the notebook, I'm more confident about my writing. Early in the summer after my sophomore year, I enthusiastically proclaim, "Well, today I finally began committing some of my stuff to disk. It's so nice now that I have Puck, my wonderful little Mac." (Puck was a Mac Classic, a one-piece computer with a handle, easily portable at only 16 pounds!) I write about looking through my notebook entries and deciding what to type into the computer and revise, and then I reflect, "I realized that I've got some good stuff. However, nearly everything I like is about death or dying. How totally morbid! The problem is that this morbidity is so typically adolescent that it's embarrassing." Very perceptive, Teen Lisa.

Here's one of my rare stories from the time that's not about death, though I'll warn you, it is a little scary. I suspect it's no coincidence that I wrote it just before Halloween.

Fear Itself

There is nothing quite like the thrill of sheer terror. The American media thrives on the culture's love of being frightened. Stephen King, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Unsolved Mysteries spawn books, films, and episodes in rapid succession, making money off our desire for horror and fear. And I'm the biggest sucker of all.

After seeing The Silence of the Lambs, I couldn't sleep without the light on for a week. I haven't gone near a graveyard since reading Pet Sematary. "Laura, I wish you'd stop reading those ghost stories," pleaded my mother after I woke her up after a nightmare for the third night in a row. "They're really unhealthy, honey."

But I couldn't stop. It wasn't teenage perversity that drove me to devour every thriller in the library, but a burning need to feel my heart beat faster and my breathing quicken as I reached the climax, then slam the book closed and remember with relief that it was just a story. The terror is only fun, of course, if it goes away.

Except it didn't. It got to the point where not only couldn't I walk outside in the dark, even with other people, but I couldn't sleep with the light out, and finally I couldn't be alone, not even in broad daylight.

I tried to hide my fears from my mother. I would go along with her every time she ran errands, rather than stay home alone, claiming that I had to buy something or wanted to talk to her. I declined her invitations for moonlit mother-daughter walks, explaining I had too much homework. I waited until she had tucked me in and closed the door before turning on my bedside lamp. Sometimes I got my little sister to sleep with me, promising to tell her all the high school gossip as we giggled late into the night.

But still I read the horror stories. I couldn't explain why. It was my secret addiction, and I walked around with a guilty conscience. The stories were becoming more real to me, too. I would become so absorbed in the book that I would become oblivious to everything else. When I stopped reading, I would be drenched with sweat and shaking.

June 3, 2016

How To Not Write a Short Story Quite Yet

A few years ago, I outlined my no-nonsense, foolproof, sure-fire method for writing a short story. For the past month, I've been working on a new story, and at first I thought I was doing really well, since I breezed past many of the early steps and quickly arrived at the stage of beginning a first draft.

It turns out I probably should have followed the procedure more closely, because I got stuck somewhere in the process. As far as I can see, deviating from the original instructions is the only reason I'm not finished drafting by now, but in case something else went wrong, I decided to record the steps I took this time.

1. Sign up for a class to give yourself both a reason to write a short story and an opportunity to receive feedback and guidance on the story.

2. Clean the entire contents of your house. Consider the course information email that advised you to prepare for class by beginning work on a story, "or at least formulating a rough idea". Recognize that your brain might generate ideas if left unstimulated during the tedium of cleaning. Instead, catch up on dozens of hours of podcasts.

3. Decide on a extremely general topic for your story. Decide that constitutes a "rough idea", so you're all set for now.

4. Spend a long, tiring day fulfilling civic obligations. When it's over, attempt to nap. Find that your brain won't turn off, but that it now contains a fully formed and detailed idea for the story. You're ahead of the game!

5. Record all your thoughts about the story. Create an outline. Reason that you can't possibly start drafting yet because the class hasn't begun, so you don't know what the word count restrictions will be.

6. When the class begins, receive the word count guidelines, plus your personal date to present your story for critique. Rejoice and despair, for your deadline is approximately one thousand weeks in the future.

7. Continue rearranging the contents of your house. Participate eagerly in the many components of the class unrelated to working on your story. After all, you signed up for this class to reap the benefits of the entire experience, and your due date is infinitely far away.

8. Take the essential but time-consuming step of assigning names to characters you've been referring to with descriptors like "Younger". Write several opening sentences and nearly three paragraphs. You're really making progress now!

9. Assemble furniture, bake cookies, spend a lot of time traveling from place to place for frustrating purposes outside your control. Devote all your remaining time to writing thoughtful feedback on the work of your classmates. Reason that since critiquing others improves your skills at spotting problems in your own work, you're essentially also working on your story during this time.

10. Realize your class deadline is in three and a half weeks and the rough draft deadline you set for yourself is in three days. Struggle to write for about an hour. Recognize that the best sentence you produce during the session is this tweet: "I find it increasingly inconvenient that it's necessary to write a first draft in order to embark on the glorious process of revision." Also recognize that this feeling is an integral component of step 10 of your original 12-step story process.

11. Spend the rest of the week on tasks that circumstances render more time-sensitive and important than your story. It's important to deal with car maintenance, because that's what responsible adults do. It's important to take care of all your classwork early, because visitors are arriving. It's important to research recipes, buy ingredients, and do more baking, because yum. It's important to jot down notes for a blog post, because it's certainly a more promising piece of writing than the story you aren't working on.

12. Have a wonderful extra-long weekend with visiting family members. Relax. Don't worry about your story. Remember that after the visitors leave, you'll still have two weeks left until the due date, and there won't be so many non-writing demands on your time.

13. Look at the partial scene you've written so far. Look away in horror. Clean your house. Take care of your classwork, some of which involves rewriting a small section of the partial scene. Contemplate more baking. Read the book you've been neglecting. Remember you made notes for that blog post you should definitely finish writing now, so it'll be out of the way and you can focus on your story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Emily St. John Mandel reflects on her lengthy book tour in The Year of Numbered Rooms: "I was declining most event offers by that point, because it was clear by then that what had started as five cities in six or seven days was going to be something closer to 50 cities in 14 months. I am aware at all times of how lucky I was with Station Eleven, having published three previous novels that came and went without a trace, but it is possible to exist in a state of profound gratitude for extraordinary circumstances and simultaneously long to go home."