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A Room Full of Banjos

Saturn Ring Blues

There's this Far Side cartoon I like a lot that shows an orchestra conductor being led into hell.  His demon guide is opening a door for him while saying, "Here's your room, maestro."  On the other side of the door are what look like a class of junior high music students, waiting patiently with their banjos.

This is one of the essential contradictions of teaching.  Many of us chose the subject we teach because we love the subject: the band teacher who listens nightly to his collection of classic jazz albums; the art teacher who plans her summer around visits to art museums; the English teacher who goes to bed every night after having read two or three classic poem, and who spend their days listening to musical instruments badly played, trying to convince students that there are art forms other than anime, and reading Twilight fan fiction.

One of the things I find hard to do as a teacher or a workshop leader is to read a bunch of student short stories in a row. It messes with my ability to suspend disbelief, and after a while, I want to start writing "What's the point?" after every paragraph.

 Of course a lot of that comes from most of the stories not being successful. The narrative voice is muted, dull and unauthentic. The stakes ...feel low or false. The settings are weakly imagined (or absent). The stories don't clear the imaginative-world bar, and there's little or nothing to tickle the part of my sensibility that loves to read.

Sometimes I wonder if the problem isn't in the story I'm reading, but in me, reading the story with that weirdly critical approach that being a teacher creates. I'm reading a set of stories from my college Creative Writing students for tonight, and although I find the occasional gem in the prose, I'm mostly turning the page, thinking, "This sucks . . . and this too . . . and this also sucks."

It's a terribly negative way to read. Naturally, when I talk to them, I'll pump up the positive areas, make suggestions for the rest, and then send them on the path of revision. I'll ask them what they hoped the story was trying to accomplish, and maybe help them to identify the narrative heart that they have missed so far.

I want to be a good reader, a helpful one, because my stuff sucks too at times. Writing saints responded to my work in my past. I never imagined what patience was required to be a writing teacher (or and editor!) before I became one.

Then, before I go to bed, I'll read some Phillip K. Dick or Ray Bradbury or Connie Willis to cleanse the palate so I won't have red-penned dreams and rejection slip nightmares.

Short Story Collections

Saturn Ring Blues
Here’s the deal: I like short stories.  Most of the time I write short stories and I love to read short stories.  I have to believe there are other people out there (lots of them) who like short stories too.  Nobody has figured out, though, how to connect these great short stories with the readers who would like them (everything turns out to be a marketing problem).  I would like people to read my short stories, but promoting my own work feels hinky, so here our some short story collections by other authors that I love:
- Fire Watch by Connie Willis
- Strange but not a Stranger by James Patrick Kelly
- 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
- Night Shift by Stephen King
- Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
- The Story of Your Life and Other Stories by Ted Chiang
- Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
- The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
I’m proud of my own collections.  Each story, at the time I was inventing it, was what I cared most about in my writing world while I was composing it.  When my students read my short story collections, I get a little nervous.  For the moment, they are as close to becoming telepathic and seeing how my mind works as they can get in this world.
That same concept is true for every author’s writing.  Buy some short story collections.


Writing Process: Practical Application

Saturn Ring Blues
My college freshmen comp class is writing a literary analysis on The Turn of the Screw. This is a challenging text for high schoolers (or anyone else)!

They're at the point where they have to start writing their papers, so I put the steps we'd already taken toward writing the paper on the board:

  • Studied the background to the novel and Henry James

  • Quiz and discussion

  • Read and discussed the novel (with writings along the way)

  • Read and discussed critical approaches to the novel (with writings along the way)

  • Chose among the approaches (the four approaches were Psychoanalytic, Gender, Marxist or Reader Response criticism)

The next step, I think, would be to do freewriting on their understanding of the book and what they want to say about the book. I didn't make this an assignment, so some kids did it but most did not.

Write a thesis. This might be something like, "The ghosts in The Turn of the Screw are illusions in the head of the sexually repressed governess."

Today I asked them to do a 10-minute freewriting on where they are in the writing of this essay. While they were doing that, I wrote on the board what I thought were the possibilities. I'm very interested in what is their real writing process rather than the idealized one where everyone is doing the same thing at the same time.

Here are what I thought were the possibilities about what was in their free writing:

  • I do/don't remember quite a bit of the book

  • I do/don't remember quite a bit of the critical approaches

  • I do/don't know what I believe about the book

  • I do/don't know a direction I'd like to take

  • I do/don't know what to do next

  • I am/am not already writing the paper

  • I have an attitude about the book or assignment that is blocking me

turnWhy this freewriting is important is because it will determine the student's next step. Many students wait until the last moment, and then plunge into what I've come to call the "desperation draft." This is a top-of-the-head, least-well-considered version of their response to the wriiting prompt. This kind of essay is so prevelant that it upsets the curve in the class. So many papers are written this way that the whole idea of what is an adequate response to the prompt is scewed downward.

What I want most of them to do is to do at least one more step before trying to draft. Possibilities include reading some more (particularly for students who say they don't remember or understand the book or the criticism), researching more, talking to other readers of the material, freewriting, and, in some cases, skipping all that and beginning the draft because trying to write the paper tells them what they need to go back to do to make the paper good.

In the meantime, I need to decide what is an appropriate deadline for the rough draft of the paper. The entire piece is only 1,000 words long, so I might want to see them on Friday.

Find the Writers You Like

Saturn Ring Blues

And study them!

I'm reading Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn now.  It's a book that I'd heard quite a bit about, but I never got around to reading.

Lucky for me, because now I get to read it for the first time.  It's kind of a fable, for those of you who don't know, about the last unicorn searching for others of her kind.  It has a heroic prince, and a bumbling wizard, and an evil king, and a truly frightening monster (plus plenty of curses and spells and castle stuff that makes my heart go squee).

But there are two features about it that I really, really like.  First, the book reads to me as if Beagle decided to absolutely, as often as possible, bend similes and metaphors to the breaking point.  There's hardly a paragraph that doesn't offer up a startling bit of figurative language, like this bit:

unicornThe unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.  She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was not longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moon lit night.  But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.

Isn't that cool?  It's poetic, but I'm hard pressed to tell you exactly what I see in it.  What is a "lilac wood," for example?  I know what a lilac is, but it's a bush, not a tree.  Is it a forest that has a lot of lilac?  And then, what is the difference between the color of sea foam (which I have seen), and snow falling on a moon lit night (which I haven't seen, but I can imagine)?  How does a shadow move on the sea?

The point isn't that the description strains my ability to see it; it's more that the description is evocative.  It's spoken as if there is a significant difference between sea foam and moon light on snow, and that I should know it.  And for the moment of the sentence, I DO know it.  At least I feel I do.

I'd heard once that a writer should use similes and metaphors sparingly, since they can compete with each other for attention.  If Beagle heard that advice, he must have thought, "Screw that, I'm going the other direction!"

So I like this book because the language is consistently interesting and entertaining.

The other reason I like it surprises me.  The language drew me in and kept me going, but now that I'm 61% done (thank you Kindle for keeping track), I find that I'm emotionally attached to the characters.  Prince Lir's tragic love is heartbreaking (and, frankly, he started as a ridiculous person), just as the unicorn's quest has me scared for what will happen next, and Schmendrick, the bungling wizard, unexpectedly developed depth and pathos.

I'm delighted that I found this book because it's both fun to read, and I like what Beagle does with the writing.  I'm learning more about the possibilities of prose through reading him.

The advice is simple: find the writers you like, and then pay attention to how they do what they do.  Maybe you'll become more of the writer you want to be by doing this.

A Good Review

Saturn Ring Blues
interzoneLois Tilton at Locus Online had nice things to say about "The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension" that is in the September Interzone.

To me, the titular school is the ultimate place of learning. I call it "the school eternal." She said of it, "The strength of the vision is such as to make readers wish it could all be true, that this is the place learning could have in the world."

Very cool, at

Starting a Project

Saturn Ring Blues

As part of my sponsorship of the Write-a-Book-in-a-Year Club at the high school, I have established a club blog.  Our librarian, Ira Creasman, will contribute articles to the blog too.  We want the kids to have a place for advice and writing resources that are aimed at them.

Here is my blog entry for this week:

I love starting a new story.  There’s something special about a blank sheet of paper.  It feels like beginning a long hike into unexplored forest.

There seems to be a continuum of approaches to starting a writing project, from the I-have-no-idea-where-I’m-going writer who starts anyway, to the writer who can’t begin a project unless there’s a completed outline (and the outliners start with nothing too, remember).

power-of-persistenceFor successful writers, the key to either approach, or an approach in the middle, is that they do start, either writing or planning, and they pursue the project consistently until it is done.

Certainly there are many ways that a writing project can go awry (although successful writers hardly every think of a project as going “awry.”  They think of writing projects that have taken a new direction), the surest ways to not succeed are not starting, not working consistently, or not working at all.

For the Write-a-Book-in-a-Year Club, a great way to be sure that you are behaving like a successful writer is to have completed work every week.

Make a goal for yourself to always send in a WIP, and to always be able to tell the group that you’ve made real progress on your project.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.”  I believe he was right.

Writing Epiphanies

Saturn Ring Blues
I'm reading an interesting book by David Jauss: On Writing Fiction.  Most writing books I read now, since I've read a LOT, cover the same ground in somewhat the same way: how to create character, how to make sensible plots, the use of setting, etc., but Jauss is making me rethink fiction.

I knew I was into a good book after I read the first chapter, "Autobiographobia: Writing and the Secret Life."  I wanted immediately to share the chapter with one of our English teachers who is also a poet.  It seemed exactly what he would like to read.  There aren't many books lately that I've wanted to share so strongly.

jaussThe chapter I read today was on epiphanies.  The epiphany is such an important part of my own thinking about story telling, that I make it a part of my short story writing assignments.  A definition for epiphany that I might use is suggested in Jauss's chapter.  It comes from achieving "the sort of transforming moment one looks for in the short story form, a shift in understanding, a glimpse of unexpected wisdom."  My argument is that to create an epiphany for the main character, the writer will have to pay attention to characterization (why are the events in this story important to this character), and the writer will have to pay attention to theme (we only tell stories, I say, that have at some level a meaning--the meaning is contained within the epiphany).

Either the character has an epiphany, I say, or the reader has one (or both).

So, teaching new writers about epiphanies is a way to make them reach for stories that are significant.  That's what I try to do with my stories.  Jauss, however, in today's chapter, "Some Epiphanies about Epiphanies," says, ". . . most of them are unearned and unconvincing, the literary equivalent of faked orgasms."  Jauss quotes an essay by Charles Baxter, "Against Epiphanies," where Baxter prefers stories that "arrive somewhere interesting without claiming any wisdom or clarification."


As the chapter went on, it turned out that he's not opposed to epiphanies, necessarily, just bad ones, like the ones that are ". . . a blast-of-trumpets/choir-of-angels moment of sudden insight . . ."  He breaks down poorly done epiphanies into four categories: discursiveness, the proclamation effect, conclusiveness, and rhetorical inflation.

Jauss makes me rethink what I'm doing.  That's the sign of a good book. 

Tightening the Story

Saturn Ring Blues
I posted a few days ago about "The Foibles of 'of'," which showed how I use the computer's "find" function to help tighten my language.  Since then, a couple readers sent notes asking me about what else I do when I reach this point in rewriting.  Here's what happened to the story when I did all the revisions [long and probably boring post warning]:

The goal is to eliminate wordiness.  One way to do this is to find the language markers that indicate wordiness, like "of."  I started with 88 "of"s and finished with 25.

For example, the original had this short paragraph: "A group of baseball players passed her, heading toward Wyoming’s corpse.  In the confusion, Aubrey had lost track of Dry Gulch.  One of the players said, 'It’s too hot to take infield.  Do you think coach will just put us in the batting cages this afternoon?”'"

The revision became this: "Three baseball players passed, heading toward Wyoming’s corpse.  Aubrey lost Dry Gulch.  A player said, 'It’s too hot to take infield.  Do you think coach will just put us in the batting cages this afternoon?'”

You might notice that other revisions impacted the description.  Since I've already established the point of view, I didn't need to say the "players passed her."  I can drop "her."  I didn't need "in the confusion," which the scene explicitly established, and "had lost track of" became "lost."  When I make those changes and revise the "of" phrases, I've cut the paragraph by eleven words.  I might reword this one more time because there's a hitch in the passage's rhythm I want to fix.

I did an "ly" search, finding 50 "ly" uses, which became 43 when I finished.  When I started doing this revising technique years ago, I used to find way more "ly" usages, but practice has beat my adverb abuse back.  I eliminated a couple unnecessary "only" usages ("only" shows up too often in my writing), and made changes like "Student Senate must actually count for something" to "Student Senate must count for something."

Then I looked for "that" occurrences.  The original used 26 "that"s, which I revised down to 12.  The story's first version had this sentence: "After a while, it seemed as if the wisps of clouds that crossed the strip of sky she could see, were still, and the arroyo itself moved beneath them." The revision became "After a while, it seemed as if the wispy clouds crossing the strip of sky stood still, and the arroyo moved beneath them." 

Once again, there's more revision than just "that" phrases.  I dropped the "she could see" because, of course, she's the point of view character and is the only one who could see it.  It's redundant to include it.  I noticed that phrase either during the "of" search or the "that" search.  Using the computer to take me directly to sentences with specific words helps me to look at the sentences out of context.  In context, I'll bet I could read over that sentence a dozen times and not notice the "she could see," but when the sentence becomes isolated, and I'm not lured by the momentum the earlier sentences give me, I notice the "she could see" stupidity, and drop it. I also dropped the "itself" after "arroyo" since it struck me as a useless intensifier.

Next I searched for "said."  To me, dialogue reads better without dialogue tags if who is speaking is clear (and if it's not clear, shouldn't it be?).  I started with 26 "said" uses that I dropped to 13.  In one spot I wrote "That's okay," Aubrey said,"as long as you're not hurt."  Since only two characters were in the scene, and I identified the other one as the speaker in the proceeding paragraph, I was able to write Aubrey's reply without the tag.  The scene ends with the unattributed, "That's okay, as long as you're not hurt." To my ear, losing the interrupting tag gives the end a stronger beat.

I'd been dreading the next search because I went on a linking verb search and destroy mission, an area where sometimes I'm terrible.  Linking verbs.  Argh!  I hate those guys.  Like the "ly" search, though, I've gotten better in not using them as much in rough drafts.  I started with 20 and ended with 8.  At one point I wrote, "Wyoming sported a long scar that started above his left ear, traversed across his face to the corner of his mouth, before ending at his chin.  It was angry and red, as if it were still a new wound." Linking verb use like this comes from "afterthought composition."  When I wrote the first draft, the scar's description came to me after I'd written the sentence about it, so I added the linking verb sentence.  The solution here wasn't to find an action verb, but to combine the sentences.  The new version became this: "Wyoming sported an angry, red scar that started above the left ear, traversed across his face to the corner of his mouth, before ending at his chin." You might notice the "that" that wasn't removed.  I need it there.

I looked for the remaining linking verb gang afterwards: am, is, are, be, being, and been, making changes where needed.

For my students, I recommend doing a "by" search.  This catches some passive structures.  For this story, I didn't have any that I wanted to change.  I also suggest looking for "like," mostly because it allows students to find similes to see if they are fresh or cliches.  I didn't have many similes in this piece.

To give myself a break from huge searches with dozens of decisions, I did a "very" search, which isn't much of a problem for me.  In general, I think English would be better if "very" vanished.  I almost never use it, except for the couple of times I do.  Then I looked for "about," so I don't give myself the luxury of lazy inexactitude.

I needed the break because the next search scares me: "his" and "her."  You wouldn't think these two words could pop up stupidly so often, but they do when I write rough drafts.  I used "his" 48 times in the rough draft, and managed to revise 15 of them from the final draft.  At one point I had this sentence pairing: He communicated an entire range of messages through his face.  When he handed her the form, he gave her his we’re-both-in-on-the-joke look. The revision turned to this:  Aubrey thought he had expressive eyebrows that communicated an entire range of messages.  When he passed her the form, he flashed a we’re-both-in-on-the-joke look.

Now that I look at it again, I see I could also eliminate "Aubrey thought . . ."  since I established Aubrey as the sole point of view, and it's clear at this point the judgements are hers.

The "her" search started with 97 occurrences, which I could have predicted, since the main character and the most important secondary character are women.  Still, I evaluated each use and revised the story down to 65.

A good example comes from the intro to the main secondary character:  "Aubrey spotted Sheriff Jane Tremble leaning on the wall next to the drinking fountain, her hat pushed back on her head, her left hand grazing the smooth handle one of her six-shooters." 

No, single "her" usage in the sentence is wrong, but 4 of them in the same sentence?! especially when some are redundant?!  The sentence begs for revision.  The new version became, "Aubrey spotted Sheriff Jane Tremble leaning on the wall next to the drinking fountain, hat pushed back on her head, left hand grazing a six shooter’s smooth handle."

And now that I look at it again, I see that I probably could drop the "her head" in the sentence, because, after all, if the sentence read, "Aubrey spotted Sheriff Jane Tremble leaning on the wall next to the drinking fountain, hat pushed back, left hand grazing a six shooter’s smooth handle."

Would anyone read that and not understand that the "hat pushed back" was on her head?

I didn't think so, and that's the test of whether the revision works.  If the new sentence is more concise, if it is still clear, if it doesn't break the rhythm, sound barbaric or damage a sentence's beauty, then it works.

It should also go without saying that the revisions I've shown here are a matter of taste, not correctness.  "Voice," no matter how you define it, comes from syntax and diction, and there are many effective ways to arrange words to create syntax, and there's thousands of words to choose for your diction.  What you want is for your voice to be seen as a feature in your writing, not a flaw.  I've sat with many a student, pointing out where wordiness, clumsiness, vagueness and inaccuracy damaged their writing, only to have them say, "But that's my voice."

It may well be, and sometimes voice is what we need to work on.

The Foibles of "of"

Saturn Ring Blues
Once again, I'm at that interesting part in my revision process where I am doing the story's final clean up.  This is after I've deepened and sharpened character descriptions, examined scenes for clarity and completeness, reworded to eliminate awkwardness, inserted unifying repetitions, and done the half-dozen or so other read-throughs that are my habit.

Now I'm tightening language.  Ken Rand's wonderful 10% Solution guides me at this point.  I've already moved through the story, examining my adverbs.  Fortunately, through practice and a heightened awareness, my rough drafts don't drip with "ly" words like they used to.  The "ly" evaluation doesn't take long.  The "of" search, though, is lengthy.

I'm an "of" slut.

The current story started at 4,377 words.  When I used my computer to find "of" phrases, it showed an appalling total: 88, sometimes several in the same sentence!


Here's the problem: "of" can create wordiness.  When I'm doing the final revision, a guiding principal is to make my meaning directly (without doing something stupid, like shattering a good rhythm).  The first time I did an "of" search, years ago, I actually found in my story that I'd written this sentence: "The dog of brown bit him."

Argh, again.

So, I looked at the opening sentence in the current manuscript: "The halls of Yellow High smelled like dusty streets in a Texas sun, like mesquite and sand and cactus, and sometimes like the hint of a thunderstorm just below the horizon; and when the double doors at both ends of the main hall opened, a wind came off the plains, stirring a swirl of a dust devil, catching paper scraps and hissing grit across the lockers, but only Aubrey noticed."

I see four "of" phrases (which I've underlined).

Some "of" uses are necessary, but, for me, many or not.  The new sentence revised all four "of" usages to this:  "Yellow High’s halls smelled like dusty streets in a Texas sun, like mesquite and sand and cactus, and sometimes like a thunderstorm just below the horizon; and when the double doors at the main hall’s ends opened, a wind came off the plains, swirling a dust devil, catching paper scraps and hissing grit across the lockers, but only Aubrey noticed."

The original version is 70 words long.  The revised is 60 words.

I'm mulling over whether "when the double doors at both ends of the main hall opened" is clearer than the revised "when the double doors at the main hall's end opened."

The story is entitled, "Aubrey Comes to Yellow High"  (I'm going through a Stephen Crane phase).  It started with 88 "of" phrases.  It's at 26 now.  The original version was 4,377 words.  I'm at 4,241 now.

The story reads better for the effort.


Saturn Ring Blues
I was thinking about how writers improve today, and it occurred to me that there are levels of activities a writer can do to grow in their craft.  Some of the activities are the kinds that I think only the most dedicated of writers try, so I realized I could put the activities into categories, which sort of correspond to how serious the writer is.

Activities that don't actually help a writer improve:

  • Telling yourself that you are a writer or want to be a writer without actually doing anything else.

  • Announcing to your friends that you are a writer, or that you are going to be a writer someday without actually doing anything else.

  • Buying a book on writing, but not reading it.

  • Spending time imagining how cool it will be when you are a writer (think of yachts, whirlwind glittering book tours, groupies), without doing anything else.

Activities that help a writer improve that are low risk or low commitment.  Low risk or low commitment doesn't mean the activities won't help.  They can help, and in some cases are 90% of what's necessary to improve:

  • Buying a book on writing and studying it.

  • Taking a writing class.

  • Watching/listening to writers on the Internet.  Do a Youtube search for "How to write fiction" or search for interviews with your favorite writers.

  • Writing (you know . . . butt in the chair time.  Of the low risk activities, this is the one that's a requirement, and for many wannabe writers the one activity they don't do.  This, by the way, is also the one activity that all successful writers do.)  "Writing" is also on the medium and high commitment list.

Activities that help a writer improve that are low to medium risk or commitment:

  • Annotating writing you like so that you can learn the writer's techniques (this is beyond reading for pleasure.  This is purposeful study.  I'm doing this right now with George R.R. Martin's Dreamsongs: Volume I  collection).

  • Rereading and annotating books on writing.  I've reread Ralph Fletcher's What a Writer Needs maybe a half dozen times.  I've highlighted half the text.  Now I'm going to have to highlight the highlights.

  • Joining a writing group.  For some folks, this is a high risk/commitment activity.  No matter how you label it, joining a writing group drops into the "doesn't help you improve" category if you don't participate by submitting manuscripts for critique and doing your best to be helpful when critiquing others.

  • Finding a helpful, knowledgeable first reader to respond to your work.

  • Attending author readings/talks when you can get to them.

  • Attending writing conventions.  These can be anything to half-day affairs at your local library to WorldCon or World Fantasy.  Besides the programming for writers, talking to other writers helps you grow.

  • Preparing manuscripts for submission, researching the market and then submitting.  Once again, depending on the person, this could be a "high risk" activity.  Submitting work for some people is scary!  Submitting work helps you to improve because you become very aware that you are now writing for an audience.  For many writers, a real, live, critical audience will drive improvement.

Activities that help a writer improve that are high risk or commitment:

  • Teaching writing.  For an English teacher like me, teaching is my job, but teaching writing has helped me immeasurably to improve myself.  Trying to explain to someone else how to improve writing means that I have to become practical and clear in my head about subjects that are otherwise theoretical and nebulous.  My suggestion to my college writing students is to volunteer in their local schools.  Teachers, particularly elementary teachers, love volunteers to help in the classroom.  Remember that I said I'd reread the Fletcher book on What a Writer Needs numerous times?  He just talks about teaching little kids how to write in that, and it has helped me improve as a writer in a zillion ways.  Don't disregard what you can teach yourself while trying to articulate to a third grader how to write a good description.

  • Reading slush for a magazine.  If you can find a publication who is looking for a reader, you can learn a ton by helping with the slush.  Even a couple of weeks of reading will show you so many of the pitfalls you will want to avoid in your own work.

  • Reading entries for a contest.

  • Writing consistently, persistently, obsessively (see the entry in the "low risk" category).

I think of this hierarchy as a pyramid.  The bottom of the pyramid, and probably a good way up it are filled with the folks who are in the "activities that don't help" area.  As you move up the pyramid, there are fewer and fewer people.  It turns out that many, many, many writer wannabes are both risk and commitment averse.


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