Fiction writing, avoiding the pitfalls, Uncategorized, What writing's all about

Good Writing Advice to Ignore

In many ways, “Write what you know” is limiting, if not downright stultifying advice for would-be novelists. Apart from military personnel, law enforcement, physicians, nurses, EMTs, financial experts, moguls, and other professionals who do write dramatic novels based on their work experiences, most fiction writers seldom do even a small seldom do even a small percentage of the things their characters do, at least physically. The majority rely on their own more mundane backgrounds and plenty of research to enrich their characters’ dialogue and create experiences vivid and exciting to read about. They apply what they’ve learned through hours of research, which includes talking to people who know more than they do about the subjects at hand, as well as reading the novels written by those professionals.

There, now you have it, advice from an "authority" on the subject of writing--reading work by others is good, good, good for your career!

To enhance the scenes they create, most fiction writers employ their own senses, their own emotional and mental reactions to events, and apply them to their characters’ responses. Every writer has feelings we can use to enrich our imagined experiences. All we have to do is dredge them up out of our own psyches, minds, and gut feelings by asking ourselves, “What would be happening inside me if…” or “How would I feel if…” or “How long could I tolerate this if…” and “How would my life be changed…” Each writer has to become her characters, to draw on the varied, often disparate sides of her own personality to discover the answers to all the questions she has to ask of her characters.

I’ve never been to space. My only experience with weightlessness was enjoying negative buoyancy while scuba diving and imagining how weightlessness in space might feel similar, which allowed me to apply that to the experiences of my characters. I’ve never been through a space-fold that took me far beyond the night sky I’ve seen all my life, but my characters saw familiar constellations appear skewed because I imagined it would be that way when each group of stars was seen from a different angle a few hundred astral units beyond the customary view.

I’ve never been mountain climbing but I have studied mountains through binoculars while mentally inserting my terrified fingers and quivering toes into cracks and crevices that appeared impossibly small even to my enhanced vision. I’ve watched climbers on film and in person, scarcely able to breathe while they ascended. My fear of falling helped me write about a character’s sensations in the moments before her rope stopped her slide when she did slip off an insecure hold. I knew this terror from a time when I scrambled (very briefly!) up a climbing wall. Thanks to that foolish stunt, I managed to inject my initial fear of falling into my character’s emotion because it created contrast to the intense sense of accomplishment when she succeeded and reached the summit. (I didn’t get that on my climbing wall. I had to be helped down from maybe twenty feet up, but I turned my disappointment on its head and reversed my self-disgust in my character’s mind, giving her, instead, a sense of triumph–the emotion I feel when I finish a first draft.)

I believe the advice “Write what you know” was mainly intended for non-fiction writers, such as those who write articles aimed at specific markets, or those talented people who compile how-to books based on their own experiences and knowledge. It would be pointless to write an explanatory article on fly-fishing if you haven’t learned the specific techniques involved, body movements probably not easily gleaned through research, but only by doing and putting in hours of practice. If you’ve never so much as planted a seed, you need practical experience before you can write a good, helpful gardening book or one about post and beam house construction.

Writing what you know also applies to location. If you’ve never been to Seattle you might be able to create a walking tour on paper by using Google Maps. That’s great, you can even see pictures of the place, learn the street names, picture the buildings. You won’t hear sounds specific to the place, though, feel the rumble of a ferry’s engines under your feet or see the utter grandeur of Mt. Rainier’s bulk looming above the city. You’ll also be far too likely to repeat a misconception you’ve heard all your life—that it rains all the time. It does not. If you’ve never been downhill skiing, don’t put a novice on a black-diamond run. If you’ve never been to a Caribbean beach, or on an ocean liner, or visited the inside of a submarine it’s hard to write about those places with authenticity. Research helps, but personal knowledge is better when it comes to setting a scene in a place readers might know well and find fault with your impressions.

So, if you’re writing non-fiction, by all means, write what you know. But if you’re writing fiction (apart from the above advice about location), let your imagination be your guide, but research well and thoroughly so you can inject a strong degree of reality into the scenes you write. Your readers want to go with you on your adventures and the only way to carry them along is to be authentic and help them feel what your characters experience through your imagination and the authority with which you write

Ignore all advice about writing. Leave your blood on every page. Every page!

Miriam Toews

Available in Amazon Kindle, Print, and Audible.

Fiction writing, avoiding the pitfalls, Living the Writing Life, What writing's all about

Romance Novels–Bad for Women? LOL.

This is a repeat of an earlier published article. I believe it bears repeating. Probably daily.

Bad, bad, bad romance novels

Why are romance novels and romance novelists looked down upon?

It’s easy to dislike something you’ve never tried and difficult to try something you’ve been told you must dislike if you want to be seen as a mature, thinking human being.

People who have never and will never read any novel that could possibly be construed as a romance have a low opinion of them and the novelists who write them because they have chosen to believe others without thinking for themselves. They have likely been told by people they admire that they must have that opinion, and speak it loudly, if they expect to be taken seriously as connoisseurs of the written word.

I once had a Child Psychologist (not a person who dealt with adult human relationships) tell me my books were “damaging” to women because my readers would “develop impossibly high expectations” and “such books are what lead to high divorce rates.” Her message was that women are so weak-minded they can’t differentiate between fantasy and real life. When I asked about the fantasies written by men, she gave her opinion that those books show life more realistically. Uh-huh! Books in the genre of one-man-single-handedly-saves the-world are safer, psychologically speaking, than women reading about romance and love. Of course, if the world-saving hero get to bed six or eight women during the course of a two-hundred-page novel, that’s okay. It’s just “male fantasy.”

I suspect the almost universal belief that all romance novels are “trash” may have been established by a few male professors in the day when certain magazines with pulp paper interiors inside slick covers bearing brightly colored titles containing words like “Romance,” and “Confessions,” and “True” were popular and beloved by many teenagers and young women. If those short “true” accounts were “trash” (they were seldom true, and many were written by men in the forties and fifties, according to statistics I’ve read), then anything to do with romance must also qualify as junk–at least according to the detractors. Luckily, I wasn’t prejudiced when it came to reading books written by men, but many men have a much harder time being seen reading books written by women whether those books are murder mysteries, thrillers, or science fiction.

I grew up and was educated at a time when about fifty percent of my contemporaries (the half of my class with penises) and a fair number of my teachers, insisted on telling me books written by my gender must, by definition, be “bad” or “poorly written” because the characters in them didn’t go in guns blazing or fists flying to settle differences. Books without those elements were boring, not at all “exciting.” If a book dealt with human feelings, human frailties, and if the conflicts could be resolved without death or arrest or both, it had to be “badly written” because those touchy-feely factors scare the hell out of a great many readers. I feel sorry for people who were, and still are, so afraid of their own emotions that reading a romance might make them feel crawly or even cause them to shed a secret tear or two.

Instead of trying to ascertain why they have this strong aversion, such people perpetuate the belief, and speak it loudly from their lofty university pulpits or bar stools, or book-review panels, asserting that most women can’t write “real” books because few women understand the way the kill-or-be-killed world works. For them, there is no such thing as men or women experiencing personal growth throughout the story in which finding love—that is love, not just sex—is the main goal. If a reader cannot accept that a character’s admitting to his or her weaknesses and learning to overcome them makes them stronger, if they cannot accept that redemption is possible, they will never understand the romance genre. Those same people likely consider “redemption” a dirty word unless the novel has at least a thousand pages and takes place in a major theater of war or was written as a result of a war or involves the priesthood of some religious belief.

When some men write what they consider romances, chances are there is no happy ending, and “a lesson has been learned” so the reader will have to think and ponder what the author of the book really meant. If I have to wonder what conclusion I, the reader, should draw, and why I needed to learn that lesson, I consider the book poorly written because the answer is too often pat—as in “infidelity, while it might feel good at the time, is wrong.” As a reader, I want something deeper than that, and I don’t like being told “you’re born, you die, and life’s a bitch.”

So, if you think that’s romance, I’m here to disagree and tell you, “Uh-uh. Nope. No way. Not this reader.” That kind of “romance” doesn’t work for me. I want a woman and a man (or a woman and a woman or a man and a man,) with serious, deep-seated inner struggles that keep them at arms’ length despite their desire to be together. Their problems must be a whole lot more difficult to solve than say, geography or a misunderstanding that could be resolved by an open conversation. Whatever conflict keeps them apart needs to be potent enough to prompt the reader’s question, “What the hell are they going to do?” A good writer of romance novels will solve those problems with common sense, a considerable degree of human psychology, and a lot of caring, without killing anyone or anything. We want our happy endings, because, pal, without that, what we romance writers call, a H.E.A. conclusion, (Happily Ever After) it just ain’t romance.

You don’t like ’em, don’t read ’em, but fucking quit telling the world they are “bad,” and even worse, “bad for women.”

Fiction writing, avoiding the pitfalls, Writing. Whatever it takes.

Letting your manuscript go

When you’ve read all four-hundred-thirty-seven pages for the ninety-ninth time and sit back with a sigh of satisfaction and say, “Damn, I’m good!” you’re probably ready to send your work away to an editor or an agent. There is never a better time to send it out… except when there isn’t.

I know because I’ve enjoyed such a moment more times than I care to say. That’s when I want to print it for the final time to make it all clean and shiny, pull some elastic bands around it and slide it, gently, tenderly, into a big padded envelope with a cleverly written cover letter, and send it off into the world.

Then, I remember how cruel that world is. “Oh, no,” I say, patting it and setting it aside. “You’re not ready yet, sweet baby.”

I  click CTRL+Home to take the file back to page one, or take off the elastics, turn my stack of paper over, set it down and start reading again. Just in case. “Maybe it’s not as good as I think it is.  Maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was five minutes ago.” Sadly, I’m probably right.

That’s when, if I’m working on an MS Word file (which nowadays is pretty much the only way I work), I run a global search for words ending in “ly”—like gently, tenderly, cleverly. And make a good stab at eliminating them wherever possible and practical. Please remember that word. Practical.

“Only, easily, truly, and certainly,” are words most readers glide over without noticing so I only look at them and make a quick decision about whether to chop them or leave them if deleting or changing them would make the sentence awkward. Above, when I wrote about “gently, tenderly” sliding my manuscript into a bag, it would have been just as effective to say “I ease” it into a bag. My cover letter could have been described as just as well by writing, my cover letter because of course, I would have written a clever one. After all, I’m a writer.

If, before this moment I have neglected to do so, I also do a global search for the word “that” which is most often nothing more than padding and can be removed. This is especially true if I’ve written something like “the man that stood on the corner was waiting for a bus,” I’d have been accused of bad writing on two counts. One, because it’s an inactive sentence, and two, because people are who and animals are that. To correct the statement, I would write, “The man who stood…” It would have been preferable to write, “The man on the corner stood waiting for a bus,” or “The man stood on the corner waiting for a bus.” Simple solutions, both.

If I feel I might have overused any word—I do have my favorites—I go through and search them out. “Know” is one. “Slow,” is another as is “deep. It is those global searches for problem words I, and you, should have done long before the final read and the wonderful “Damn, I’m good!” moment. Once we’ve completed them, done everything possible to make our manuscript the best it can be; when astute people have proofread it for typos, grammar, spelling, punctuation and plot holes; when we’ve repaired all the bloopers brought to our attention, it is time to submit it. If we don’t, as writers have the courage to put our work out there, we’re in danger of shoving it into a box under the bed where it will languish. At that point, we have to let it go and send it out into the world to fly to the sky or sink into the Mariana Trench. (Or simply float along gently on the surface of the world where once in a while some reader will trip on it, pick it up, enjoy it, and let you know. There is satisfaction there too.) Not every book is destined to be a bestseller.

Still, that “Damn, I’m good!” uplift in spirits, the feeling of intense satisfaction must not be ignored. The best time to send a book away for the professional assessment of a publishing house or literary agency is when you’re on a real emotional high. That’s about the easiest time to let it go. It’s also the time to anchor your thoughts on the next book, the one poking holes in your brain, insisting it needs your attention, demanding you write it. Now.

Celebrate your great feelings about your work as I hope you celebrate this festive season the way you prefer. I also hope your career will grow as swiftly as my amaryllis blossoms which, three weeks ago, were mere sprouts poking out of the bulbs. Write well and daily throughout 2020! Be a flowering amaryllis.

Book Reviews from Rider of The Waves, Living life as it comes, What writing's all about

Reviews #13 & 14 of 30 for 2017 Kena the Good Hyena / Kena la hiena buena, Books 1 & 2, by Gabriela Arellano

I’m delighted to feature these two bilingual children’s picture books, KENA THE GOOD HYENA / KENA LA HIENA BUENO.Kena Hyena

Similar in tone to the ever popular Berenstain Bears books, Books 1, Being The Best, shows how good behavior can make any child’s life run smoother, and that being selfish and boastful can lead to unhappiness at school.

The second book, When Dad’s Away, illustrates the way a child mKena 2ight feel abandoned and unloved when Dad has to go far away to work. But it also reassures the child that distance is no barrier to love.

But, more important to me, as a writer, is that the author has aimed her work at young children and their parents of two different linguistic groups. During my years in Costa Rica I was struck (unfavorably) by the small number of people of all ages I saw reading for pleasure. On buses, on park benches, on beaches, it seemed few read anything but school texts or newspapers. Even large bookstores featured little fiction—especially for children. This may not be the case in other Spanish speaking countries, but to find a book like this is a real pleasure regardless of where it might be read and enjoyed because not only does it encourage adults to read to their children, it will surely help English speakers learn Spanish, and perhaps vice versa. Though in my experience it was the “Gringos” (myself included) who needed to learn, far more than the “Ticos.”

Living the Writing Life, What writing's all about

Questions about anatomy

I’m currently reading a book whose title I will not reveal by an author who will also go unnamed. This book has given me an entirely different take on human anatomy.

Vertebrae Anatomy With Ciculatory System

For instance, a man (who was standing upright)  felt sweat well in his armpits then run down the trough of his spine to pool at the small of his back. That got me thinking. If sweat welled in my armpits, assuming it was going to be so extensive as to flow, I can only envision it running down my sides. This may be due to my being female. I do know men are built differently from women but is the difference so great? I can see this maybe happening if the man were lying on his back on a non-porous surface, like a plastic sheet on a level floor, but I’m firmly convinced all that liquid from his pits would somehow have to navigate uphill over some muscle ridges on his back prior to reaching “the trough” of his spine and continue its journey to pool at the small of his back.

A second anatomical anomaly had me seriously doubting my anatomy and physiology professors. In a scene, the man ran his hand over the woman’s belly button and her navel. Then, as the scene heated up, he kissed her belly button and her navel. I’ve always thought the two terms “belly button” and “navel” were interchangeable, but apparently not because the woman in question has one of each. At least one of each. I’m not finished the book and I agreed to review it, so I feel morally obliged to continue to the end. I may learn she has something else there in the middle of her abdominal plane.

Another one, not in the book I’m currently reading, but in one some time ago had a man lift the woman’s long, heavy locks, kiss the nape of her neck and her eyelids. Oh, right, maybe she was an alien and had her eyelids on her nape, but I didn’t get that impression from the rest of the novel.

This brings me to another concern: The use of unnecessary words. “The nape of her neck.” What other body part has a nape? Go ahead, tell me and I’ll shut up on the subject. Would we ever feel compelled to refer to “the eyebrows on her forehead”? I don’t think so, because that’s the only place humans have eyebrows. And what about people who shrug their shoulders? What else is actually shrugged by the vast majority of people? I’ve been known to write that a character shrugged one shoulder to suggest even less caring than shrugging two, but it’s still a shoulder that got shrugged. So when I want a character to shrug both, I just write “he shrugged,” and expect everyone to understand and form a mental image of two shoulders approaching ears then dropping. I’m also accustomed to reading about a character who “thinks to himself.” Hmm? Who else would he think to, I ask you, unless he’s a telepath capable of thinking to someone else?

But imagine the possibilities! If my belly button was an outie and I wanted an innie, I could have a plastic surgeon simply remove the belly button and replace it with the much neater navel. Or vice versa.Putting eyebrows on my kneecaps, letting them grow long and bushy, would certainly be helpful in protecting my patellae when kneeling to weed the garden. Wouldn’t it be cool to be telepathic and extremely handy to have eyes that could see behind? When I was raising children, they did believe I had eyes in the back of my head, but if I  could hide an extra pair of peepers behind a long fall of hair, I think I’d become a spy or a highly paid private detective. When I wanted to see if someone was following me, no more of this glancing into a conveniently placed plate-glass window and checking out the reflection of what was behind me. I’d simply toss my head, or sensuously flip my hair for a moment, or shrug one shoulder to displace a couple of locks so I could steal a glimpse to the rear. Then if someone was tailing me, I’d think to my partner about needing back-up, fast! Oh! The possibilities this would open up! The FBI would love (or hate) me. The CIA would hire (or shoot) me. The KGB… no, wait, they’ve been replaced.

But those are thoughts for another day. I still have to finish that book about the woman with both a belly button and a navel, then write a review. I can’t see my way out of it going either forward or backward, nor can I just shrug it off. Oy!

Another time I may feel moved to discuss the term “She threw up her hands.” What? I don’t remember her eating them. The very thought is enough to make me, well, throw up.