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Michelle's Musings

Even Schmucks Have an Inner Voice


Guidelines for good writing are found in numerous how-to books and blogs, but not all are steadfast. In fact, the more rules I come across, the more I realize how much heterogeneity exists. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to crafting the ultimate masterpiece. And so, I'm on the cusp of going a little rogue on methods and techniques and steering more toward feel and intuition. While you and I know that flying by the seat of one's pants does not guarantee success, I need to free myself from mechanistic self-edits that mire me in stagnation to the detriment of my creativity. In the spirit of simplicity, therefore, I'm going to ease up on myself a bit by narrowing my tricks of the trade to four goals.


I just alluded to the first goal, which is to spew your thoughts and ideas onto the page without concern for the editorial process. Call it brainstorming or free-association; the point is to throw the rules of writing out the window and get something down on paper without regard to the minutia of self-correction. If you're a bit anal like I am, though, this task is easier said than done. If correct-as-you-go works for you, by all means, keep at it. But I've got to do a better job of staying out of the quicksand quagmire of never-ending rumination.


The next goal is a more established dictum. I've written a monthly column for more than a decade in which I profile members of one of the writers groups to which I belong. I always ask my subjects for writerly advice to provide to others. Universally, they recommend reading as much as possible, preferably in your genre of choice, and writing everyday no matter how few words are produced. I strive to adhere to these principles, though I've been known to fall off the wagon from time to time.


Next, it's critical to have fresh eyes examine your work for those not-so-subtle errors you've become too myopic to see. Scientific studies document how we subconsciously insert words and letters while reading because our mind's eye tells us what we expect to see or read. If you're dyslexic, this is particularly problematic. Therefore, it's crucial to have someone else read your work to find errors you're unable to see. At the very least, set the work aside for several days (or longer) before attempting to reread it yourself.


Fourth, get comfortable with rejection. When I see poorly written and seemingly unedited contest or anthology submissions chosen over my work, I realize that my issue is not necessarily a poor product. Perhaps it was the mindset or the genre preference of the contest judge, or their lack of diverse cultural awareness and interest. But it does help to review those winning pieces because I sometimes learn how I might improve my work.


I'm fully aware that certain projects (like writing a novel) are more successful if they follow a formulaic paradigm. But even then, many best-selling authors deviate from conventional norms of plot and character development or utilization of point of view. In my estimation, if a story is written well enough to get readers invested in the protagonist's journey and to evoke a lasting emotional response, the reader will keep turning the pages.


And, oh, did I mention luck? Most of us schmucks don't have fame, highly visible platforms, or reputable contacts in the literary world, so we're missing a leg-up there. But you never know when you're going to strike it lucky unless you try. By following your inner voice, you may be closer to success than you realize!

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New Beginnings

It seems appropriate to talk about new beginnings given that we've not only started a new year, we've just entered a new decade. It's also timely since I'm reworking the opening chapters of my novel, Hide and Seek.


It's my understanding that one should avoid detailed revisions when developing the storyline and subplots. I find that's easier said than done. This go around, instead of plowing through the entire novel again, during which time I tend to lose focus, I'm limiting my revisions to the first story arc (approx. first 80 pages) before moving on. (I blogged about the four arc system in my Nov 15 post.)


I'm refocusing my rewrite this way, because I keep changing the novel's ending, which means I have to revise earlier chapters to make them fit that new ending. It's a laborious process, and I'm kind of tired of doing it this way.


By revising the first arc before progressing through the rest of the novel, I think it'll be an easier and more rewarding process to then structure the remaining sequences (last three arcs) on the first one. This process may be a rule-bender, but I like Pablo Picasso's advice: "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist."


That's my new writing goal for the New Year--to improve my focus by implementing a building block method. I'm not only looking forward to new beginnings, I'm also looking forward to a more satisfying ending to my novel.


Happy Writing, and Happy New Decade! 


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Panster vs. Planner

As a fiction writer, I've never been a fan of outlines. It seems to me that you have to know your story before you outline it, so why not just write it to begin with?


While I understand the merits of planning, once I have a story concept in my head, I tend to want to sit down and plug away, sometimes not even knowing how the story will end. I'll fill in the blanks, if any, during subsequent revisions.


I guess I'm one of those "by the seat of her pants" writers. Which brings me to this term, panster (vs. planner or plotter), that I've been hearing more oftenApparently, it's been around for some time now, from back in the day when folks preached that all books should begin with an outline.


Panster is shorthand for someone who does what I describe above--a writer who, in essence, lets the story write itself. A panster has an idea for a story and a few characters in mind, but she may not have the plot points contrived at first sitting. A planner, on the other hand, methodically maps out or outlines plot points in advance.


Therein lies the crux of the issue.


The common pro for outlining is that it helps structure plot lines. I would think that being a planner might stifle the flow of creative juices with all that organizing of ideas into charts or columns or on Post-it Notes destined for a storyboard. Since one of the tenets of crafting a novel is to disregard the compulsion to self-edit (a struggle in itself) during the brainstorm of that initial draft, does outlining help or hurt that process?


In researching this topic, I found just as many blogs and articles for, against, and ambivalent about panster writing. No matter which approach I contemplate, it can be a bit daunting just trying to get a project started--let alone figure out which method to use. Either has its merits.


So, what say you? Do you go with the outline, or do you fly by the seat of your pants? Are you a panster or planner, or a little bit of both?

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Breaking Away from the Critique Group

As a writer, I find the process of critiquing one's work similar to that of an artist who steps away from his canvas and revisits it later with "fresh eyes." Only, in the case of writing, the fresh eyes often belong to someone other than the artist. That's not to say that the author shouldn't critique her own work. I just find it difficult to do so without setting it aside for at least a week or two. Even then, I don't trust myself to recognize all the deficiencies. Having a total stranger (in the form of a fellow writer) review my work can provide invaluable feedback about problems I didn't even know existed.


What I've wrestled with, though, is sorting through which critical feedback is useful and which is not. For example, I follwed a suggestion to change my novel's point of view and found that doing so helped me resolve an issue I'd been struggling with. I was also told that my prologue did not fit, so I removed it. Later, in a different critique group, the suggestion was made to add a prologue.


I'm more of a "do as you're told" person, but I've come to understand that there's a delicate dance to be performed in creating a piece of fiction. Studying the craft of novel writing is invaluable. On the other hand, the creative process must be my own.


Recently, I've had other authors tell me that I may want to break away from critique groups as they can stifle the writing process. I'm interested in learning how others grapple with incorporating critical feedback into their writing.


How much does one "play by the rules," and when does one "throw caution to the wind?" Read More 

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