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Sunday, November 30, 2008


Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 258,384. 3035 words gone!

Page Count for the Novel: 916 pages. 15 pages gone!

Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.

-- Albert Einstein

Thankful, I am, and not just because it’s a ritual of Thanksgiving. It’s because all I have right now is this moment of writing.

Writers are the sort who rise with stories on the brain and wander through the day seeing stories in everyone else. Writers invent new outcomes to events and wrestle with what if’s no one else bothers to indulge. It’s a natural state of imagining and analyzing, a tendency that feels just right to those of us blessed with it. If you are called to write, you do it easily as breathing some days. That’s the Muse – the genetic fire starter. (We won’t get into what drives revision -- maybe sheer will and our better angels?)

I attended a talk by Tom Wolfe a few years ago to hear him confess he despises writing. He said it was a source of torment. It made me wonder if I wasn’t missing something, the horrors of a boot camp never attended. Perhaps I’d squirmed my way out of duty? Since then, I’ve decided that I will define my writing process. I may not make it as a card-carrying member of the Suffering Writer Clan, since I’m not sure my slogging through crytiques, rejections, and years will measure up unless I hated every second. But that’s okay, because I’m happy. I really love this gig.

I love disappearing into language and story. It’s the same fun as storytelling at age nine, when I invented new people and landscapes for the sake of fun and games. Today there’s still no end to ideas and creating. As a teacher, I’ve celebrated this ability in all of us, the infinite and abundant creativity we all possess. That’s why the scarcity model of some artists and many critics – those who feel compelled to slam others’ work and reinforce hierarchies – doesn’t make sense. Yes, there should be a measure of quality. Yes, not just anyone can write a classic or join the canon. Let’s keep standards and celebrate the greats. But there is enough money, attention, and enjoyment to go around. It’s okay for us all to love writing.

So if writing is my cornucopia, my feast this Thanksgiving, I don’t have to peer much beyond all the fruit and fowl spilling out to see what I’ve taken for granted. I have time to write. I have eyes-ears-fingers to make the recording easier; the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly should humble us all. I have belief in my writing, even when others may not. I also have a writers’ community of support – both former and current friends who have guided me along the path. Finally, I am grateful for family and husband who get why I write. Thank you to all of them.

So in this spirit of thankfulness, I refuse to define my writing success by a big book contract. I refuse to rail against myself for not having finished the novel years ago. I am thankful that this year I’m in a third draft of it; that two short stories were finalists in contests this year; that one short story was accepted to a journal. If today’s work is a joy, a chance to disappear into the fiction I’ve created and make it better, then why give myself fits? We will write no novel before its time. What’s Your Hurry, my husband sings. Is it worth your worried mind? When it’s over, it won’t matter. Tell me, are you satisfied?

Today's Writing Goal: Continue editing up to page 450, cutting words, and removing any passages that slow momentum.
Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.
© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.
Elementary, Secondary, and Adult

What things and people make you happy? Who or what are you grateful for? Make a list of ten people and things – places, objects, events – that give you joy.Choose one and write a poem, a song, a letter, or a prayer (or a combination of any of these) that explains why you are thankful for this part of your life.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hooray for Hybrids

“…there is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an "awesome God" in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

-- Barack Obama, 2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address, "The Audacity of Hope"

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 261,419. 56 words added.

Page Count for the Novel: 931. Okay, here’s what happened: I wrote a new scene and I’m fusing old scenes (one of which I cut along with 300 pages back in the spring). So while I’m getting my bearings, things are getting longer. Temporarily. I mean it.

Dear President-elect Obama,

Congratulations on your election to the highest office in the land. You ride the wave of what I will call The Hybrid Zeitgeist. It’s a belief that we as people and as a body politic are so much more than our labels. White, black, gay, straight, Christian, atheist – these are just some of those odorless, tasteless, cardboard terms only good for making boxes to stuff us in. The truth is, we are all “mutts” – the term you used this past week when describing potential puppies for the family – and yourself.

Here’s what I know about mutts, since any cats I’ve known fit that profile: Mutts are survivors. They are not only savvy but lean and tough. I didn’t think I could call a person a hybrid, but the dictionary says I can: Mr. President-elect, you are “a person or group of persons produced by the interaction or crossbreeding of two unlike cultures, traditions, etc.” The environmental movement tells us biodiversity is a good thing. Hybrids are bound to happen naturally, and hopefully the manmade sectors like the automobile industry will start imitating Mama Nature.

President-elect Barack Hussein Obama, your election has inspired me to think not only about history, change, and progress, but also about personal responsibility. My personal responsibility to my beliefs, which play out in how I handle my finances, in what I give to the community, and in what issues from my mouth. I’ve been thinking about integrity and what it means to speak one’s truth.

Here’s a truth about my writing:

It’s a Sex in the City novel meets Christian inspiration; it’s Bridget Jones Diary merged with Girl Meets God. Crossbred fiction, you could say, and conceived of long before I was a fan of any of these other pop culture fictions. When I first described the book’s subject more openly a few years ago, I joked it would make both the Christians and the Atheists mad. (I believe that if we’re going to speak in clichés, Atheists deserve a capital letter, too.) My brother-in-law joked, “Sounds like you got a bestseller there!” Even to describe my book, I chose to speak in stereotypes, consigning the human race to two polarized camps, and in so doing, led the listening crowd to wonder if such a book as mine would ever be more than niche.

But since your election, I feel much surer of something I’ve sensed for a long time and stated by you to the nation back in 2004 – that the time of partisanship and division in all areas political and spiritual is ending. That it’s okay to irritate those who would say, “You can’t be a progressive and a Christian” (yes, a direct quote said once to me) or “You can’t address sex or allow cussing in a Christian book.” Or, better yet, it’s okay to write to an audience of mutts, because that’s a guaranteed market of folks who would understand.

I believe God to be as complicated as people are, only a much nicer guy. I believe He doesn’t frown on the profane as much as we think, having made us out of dust and all. The sacred tends to always have a little dirt and dust mites on it. Just the nature of life on this planet.

President-elect Obama, you have a tough road ahead, but you have already convinced me of some of your admirable character traits. You are a listener, which is key when trying to cross party lines and create hybrid legislation. You tend to think before you speak, which always helps in a dialogue where opposing powers are vying for say. Those two characteristics alone are going to bust up some paradigms and ways of doing business. I also believe you have the integrity to rise above politicized doublespeak to tell us the truth of what you believe, despite whatever criticism might ensue. You know you speak for a country of hybrids counting on you to do so.

You can’t go it alone. The rest of us mutts have got to help. We can start by telling our truth and listening to the truth of others.

Today's Writing Goal: Link together disparate, episodic scenes, and cut 1,000 words.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


Option #1: Difference is Good!

America is a country of many different types of people. What are special qualities do you possess that make you different from other people? Think about your looks; think about what language you speak at home; think about places you have lived. Think about talents you have; think about things you know how to do that other people might not know. Think about your personality.

Now think about someone who is very different than you. This might be a friend or a classmate or a family member. How is this person different than you?

Write a poem about you and this person you know. Describe and celebrate your differences. What is great about being different?

Option #2: Where We Come From

America is full of people who come from many different countries or parts of the United States. Where were your parents born? Where were your grandparents born? Does any of your family live outside the United States?

Talk to your family and write the stories of how long you have lived where you are and whether the rest of your family has ever lived somewhere else. If there are any sad or funny events to describe, tell those stories, too.

Secondary and Adult:

Option #1: An Ode to Difference

How is difference a strength? Think about all the ways you are different from your family members or from your friends. Make a list of personality traits, looks, physical abilities, talents, interests, hobbies, beliefs, and experiences that distinguish you from other people you know well.

Now select one element of your difference and celebrate it. Describe this part of you in detail and write an ode, which is a poem that celebrates something. In this poem describe all the wonderful parts of having this difference.

Option #2: How Hybrid Am I?

The dictionary defines a hybrid as “a person or group of persons produced by the interaction or crossbreeding of two unlike cultures, traditions, etc.”

How are you a hybrid? Think about your race, ethnicity, religion, customs, beliefs, or any other part of you that makes you a hybrid.

Now write a description of yourself in the third person by writing a letter to President-elect Obama. He has just joked that he is a “mutt” or a hybrid. Explain to him how you are a hybrid, too.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Query Me This

“Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write. It's the first impression and will either open the door or close it. It's that important, so don't mess it up. Mine took 17 drafts and two weeks to write.”

-- Nicholas Sparks

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 261,363. 466 words gone.

Page Count for the Novel: 928 (I had chapters beginning on separate pages, and I want to see what the true page count is, not including pages with only one line on them.)

When is a writer ready to query? It’s both an intuitive and a logistical decision, a balancing of your mind and heart’s call, that gut feeling, against the reality of those picked-at pages. In what I would call my serious sixth year of writing this novel and in my third draft, I write query letters as a way to focus my goals for my novel. I am not far from sending one off, as I’m on draft #8 of one particular query letter. Researching my potential future agents and editors as been a way to stay motivated and keep myself on track.

On Saturday, October 25, The Raleigh Write 2 Publish Meetup Group held a Q & A session with Charlotte agent Sally Hill McMillan (literary fiction, women’s, inspirational, nonfiction) and editor Chuck Adams of Algonquin (Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants one of his well-known books). Here’s what I learned:

About the business: the publishing industry does not employ a diverse group of people, therefore what gets published is limited by the perspective of those running the business. The profession pays poorly, so the people who are drawn to it tend to be northeastern, white, prep school graduates with families that can afford to work in publishing. A gifted Latino coming out of college with student loans can’t get very far on the salaries paid in publishing.

Algonquin – owned by Workman – is a New York publisher. The Chapel Hill office is a “façade,” he jokes. Algonquin doesn’t take on any book that it doesn’t believe couldn’t sell 50,000 copies. An acquisitions editor has to ask, Does this book have a broad enough readership? Most first novels sell less than 5,000 copies. Why? Publishers don’t have advertising budgets to push these books further.

About an editor’s role: Chuck Adams said he has a knack for trying to keep people calm, which helps in the process of reworking a novel. He says he’s a line editor --dogged, chipping away word by word -- but not a conceptual thinker when it comes to solving plot problems and getting past blocks. Some editors are great for that. He joked that some acquisitions editors are not good line editors, but they give good lunch. He approaches everything as a reader. When something in the manuscript makes him stop – a word, an action – he makes a mark. The really good authors listen to what he says but not everything. Half the time he’s right, and half the time he’s wrong. An author needs to speak up when she’s sure that her character wouldn’t take the suggested action or speak a certain way. He says that as an editor you’re there to guide and facilitate, but it’s not your manuscript. Your name doesn’t get put on the book.

Adams noted that today there is too much emphasis on a manuscript coming in perfect. Big houses such as Bantam don’t give a manuscript detailed attention, since houses can’t afford to hire line editors for four months. More and more authors rely on agents or free lance editors for that kind of help. McMillan suggested that if you use an editor before submitting to her, don’t let her know: she wants to see what you can do without an editor. She’s looking toward your future as someone capable of multiple publications, not someone whose work needs serious book-doctoring every time. (I’ve learned firsthand the perils of handing your baby over to an ill-qualified book doctor with little to tell me and much to charge me.)

About the role of an agent: McMillan says that a good agent works like the diplomatic middle child, the moderator between publisher and author. She asks, What can I do to make this relationship smooth? McMillan says she tries to stay in the loop of what’s happening in the book’s production. If her client gets into an adversarial relationship with the publisher, it has an effect on her. So an agent needs to bring the skills of problem solving, intuiting, and question asking to the relationship. Her answer came in response to, “How do you balance the relationship between author and publisher?” – and this might be a good one to ask when interviewing agents.

About your manuscript: Both McMillan and Adams say they take notice if voice and energy are present. For McMillan, it could be a quirkiness, a unique voice still bearing a universality that speaks to her. As she reads, she’s asking, Can I identify with this main character in the first few pages? She said that as a reader she wants to be compelled to read till very end—not just the first 50-60 pages. She wants to think, “I love this character and I want her to work these problems out.”

Adams’s question while reading is, Is this is a big enough story that will make me enjoy myself the whole trip? He says he doesn’t finish the great majority of manuscripts because by page 30 they run out of steam. He’s looking for raw talent and doesn’t mind the kind of errors that are “fixable.” He loves to work with first-time authors. He says he loves his job because it’s like “falling in love” again and again when you discover that great new manuscript.

Both mentioned poor grammar and mechanics (occurring at a rate of increasing frequency nowadays) as big red flags. Such errors usually give away the age of the author, Adams says, but more importantly, speak to the lack of care invested in a manuscript.

About querying: Adams does look at slush e-mail as does McMillan, but don’t expect an answer. He shepherds about five books a year, while Algonquin as a whole juggles about 20. Therefore his usual response must be a “no.” Algonquin is a publisher that still accepts unsolicited manuscripts, and you can expect your manuscript to be read by an intern (the majority are UNC-Chapel Hill students.) Adams does open all the mail he receives and then hands it off to various interns.

About the writer as client: McMillan hopes that all her clients will be good listeners who are coachable and teachable. She says her dream client wants to work with her. For nonfiction especially, the writer who brings a platform (the number of potential readers awaiting the book) is ideal. If you can use a blog or Web site to build a base, that’s an excellent way to build your platform. Endorsements in a query letter might catch her eye, lending your unknown name some credibility.

About self-publishing: It’s something to consider for those who have a niche market, such as nonfiction writers. Adams says he has heard that Lulu.com and iUniverse both do a good job getting your book built. Lulu is currently establishing a headquarters on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. However, self-publishing means you’re on your own, and a publishing house will edit and market better.

I spoke with Adams after the session and asked him about the fact that my book is somewhere between two genres, a hybrid beast. He mentioned a few publishers that might suit and then said that it’s hard when you’re forging a new path – you’re out there on your own trying to communicate where you fit and what you have to offer.

As I’ve polished the most recent query letter, I’ve used a very helpful resource, Noah Lukeman’s How to Write a Great Query Letter. It provides specific guidelines about how to stay concise (a three-sentence plot synopsis), how to focus each paragraph, and how to keep your audience clearly in mind. He also points out several pitfalls you definitely want to avoid. My queries have improved tremendously from consulting this resource.

Today's Writing Goal:
Work through a block where two plot lines cross and make sure they link up smoothly.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: The Big Questions

We all have questions that no one seems to know the answer to. What questions do you wish someone would answer? What questions are really exciting to you? What questions keep you up at night? What questions would you like to ask but are too afraid to ask?

Think of someone whom you believe knows a lot. Think of a question you would like to ask that person.

Write a list of ten big questions you have. Then write about how you would find the answer to one of them. Who would you need to talk to? Where might you go to find out? What else would you need to do?

Optional: Write a letter to someone who can help you answer this question.

Secondary and Adult: The Big Questions

There are many types of questions that excite us or keep us up at night or haunt us during our days. Factual questions are those ones that will eventually yield a yes/no or data-based answer – and it may be just a matter of time to get there. Analytical and evaluative questions result in more open-ended answers and require more critical thinking.

Analytical and evaluative questions can begin with words such as how, could, what if, and should. Write ten open-ended questions that get you thinking hard.

Select one and answer it. Answer it by listing what you already know, what you want to know, and how you will find the answer.

Optional: Write a query letter to someone who can help you answer this question.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Shape of Things

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

-- Dr. Martin Luther King

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 261,829. 2500 words gone!

Page Count for the Novel: 935

Prognosticators about the economy are saying things will be bad for quite some time. Timetables for exodus from Iraq are spoken of in years. When it comes to solving the problems of a global economy and international diplomacy, one has to think in decades.

I’m beginning to think in a similar timeframe about this novel.

While it doesn’t exist on the level of economic depressions and wars, I have to view this work in progress the same way I view my retirement accounts: in decades. (I didn’t ever think I’d be so thankful to be “only 40”!)

Neither is my work in progress about justice per se, but there’s a whiff of justice around trying and trying and trying again and finally getting someone to care about what you’re writing.

Considering I conceived of this novel in 1994, wrote 100 pages then and the first draft between 2003-2004, and now four years later still tackle it weekly in its third draft, the arc of the creation is indeed long.

There are signposts of hope along the way. In 2007 I entered the first 50 pages of my manuscript in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. This was after trying to enter the year previous and being rejected due to a postmark set one day beyond the required one. A funny thing happened on the way to the packaging place in 2006: since the person behind the counter stamped my envelope on the day of the postmark, I thought I was legit; but because it was after 3:00 p.m., the stamp was set for 3/02/06…My negligence, my procrastination, my fault running myself right up to the deadline like that – never mind the fact that when my manuscript made it to round two where you submit the next 50 pages, I wasn’t even sure if I was sending the competition the right ones that would match up with the original submission (I’d made enough revisions by then to be confused on that point).

But it doesn’t matter. I believe now, after making it to the fourth round of the 2007 competition, that submission in 2006, or winning in 2007, wasn’t meant to be. I realize now that I’ve actually been too early. Making it further along in a competition was all that’s been needed to send me a strong message to keep writing.

Then there’s the stopgap writing – the short story urge that grabs me every once in a while to shake a tale out of my system. The stopgap story (a term coined by Doris Betts) also bends towards hopeful outcomes. I am a finalist in the Writers’ Group of the Triad contest for a story that’s taken three drafts and seen at least three rejections. This contest was judged by Shannon Ravenel, founder of Algonquin Books. I can’t tell you what a green flag this is to keep trying. Rejection sends me back to revision, which gets results, it seems.

Am I a Pollyanna? Well, then, so was MLK. The idea of him thinking justice is the outcome! That the promised land awaits us! The very idea!

A writing colleague and co-author Delia DeCourcy sent me some good advice after my last post that coincides with my advice to myself to be patient:

“I don't pay attention to word count but shape. I…look at the arc of each part and that is helping me shape each chapter in terms of plot and character. Obviously, there's no scientific method to writing a book, but maybe if you think more in terms of architecture rather than pages as you revise it will help? As I recall, your novel has numerous narrative strands. You've probably already asked the question which ones are necessary? Sometimes that's hard to discern. Which ones are necessary to show us Daria's emotional journey, her shift? Are there characters or strands who are showing the same things to us about Daria? Can you cut some of those? The same question goes for scenes. If a scene isn't revealing something new about the protagonist, it should go. Don't know how helpful that is. These are some of the things I ask myself as I'm writing. Also, my thesis advisor told our workshop that he wrote a 700 page version of his novel, cut it down to 200, them brought it back up to 400. What if you did an exercise where you forced yourself to piece together a 300 page version of the novel, keeping only the utter essentials? What would you include? What would the shape of that book be?”

Shape. Arc. These are words synonymous with the long-term, global, thematic urges that form a story – that direct a life. I will be thinking forest rather than trees whenever I get discouraged about the years logged in this process. If I’m not doing this for the love of the experience itself, for those transcendent moments you have while writing, then I'm hurrying after a hollow shell of a goal, built on joyless sweat and competitive drive. Who wants to live like that?

Uh, those who have been mangling our stock market lately.

Count me out and in for something bigger.

Today's Writing Goal: As I move into the second half of the novel, think shape, think scope, think global. I see three acts in this novel and I approach the crisis in the next phase. Make it a good one!

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


Option 1: Making the World a Better Place.

What do you do to make the world a better place? Think of the littlest things you do. Is it saying please and thank you? Is it helping someone who needs it? Is it speaking up when someone is doing something wrong? Is it apologizing for something you have done?

Make a list of things you do to improve the lives of others around you and to make your life kinder, friendlier, and fairer.

Then tell a story about one of these times when you made a good choice. What did you do? What did others do? What did people say? What was the outcome?

Option 2: Naming Justice

What does the word “justice” mean to you? How do you know when something is “just”?

Write about something you have heard about in the news that is just or something that is unjust. How do you know when something is just – or not?

Secondary and Adult

Option 1: Thinking Globally and Acting Locally

Do you tend to see the big picture or look at the details of things? Whether you see one or the other or both, the chances are one of your acts of kindness had a broader impact and meaning than you think.

Think about a specific time when you did something kind, fair, or just. Tell that story with as many details as you can, reliving the experience. What was done, said, thought? What was the outcome? What was the purpose behind your action? Why did your action matter? Frame your actions in light of larger reasons, purposes, or movements occurring around you.

Option 2: The Moral Universe

Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

What do you think he meant? Explain his thinking in this quotation.

Then respond to it. Explore your opinion about

-- whether the world is getting better or worse,
-- whether morality is increasing or decreasing, or
-- whether you have hope for the future about the goodness of society and its ability to improve.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Counting on Infinity

“Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

Stephen King quoting an editor’s comment on a rejected short story,
On Writing.

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 264,329. 65 words in excess.

Page Count for the Novel: 941

“This is the only time we’ll ever do math in this room,” I used to say to my English students, “the math of how long it takes me to grade your essays.” In response to whining over the whereabouts of their papers, I’d bring them up short with the raw, scary data of my hours spent beyond their view, hunting topic sentences and run-ons. Math served me well at such moments.

I hate mathematics, even though it’s beautiful, philosophical, and essential; I hate how clueless I feel in its presence. Perhaps that’s the root of my love-hate relationship with the addition and subtraction part of this writing job and why some days I feel I can’t get it right.

I was once given a cold, hard number of advice about page count – that this novel in progress should hover between 300-400. I’m at 941 and 264,329 words. By this formula, I must reduce to 112,360 words. (Note I had to work with ratios to get that. I like ratios. They and percents make good, mundane, unscary sense -- unlike figuring the volumes of cones and parsing sines and cosines.)

But now that I have this answer, all I can say is, Hmm.

Does it help my overwritten case that my original first draft was once 299,441? Does the eradication of some 35,000 words give me any lit cred whatsoever?

Stephen King writes, “If the first draft of a novel runs three hundred and fifty thousand words, I’ll try my damndest to produce a second draft of no more than three hundred and fifteen thousand…three hundred, if possible.”

I’m no Stephen King, in many senses. I don’t have an automatic audience and fan base who will tolerate vast lengths, and my plots don’t simmer with the kind of scary conflict he’s mastered, keeping the reader poised on edges of things. The only fair comparison with him is I write “puffy” as a rule, and there I diverge. 10% has to be too conservative a formula for this inflated, bloated prose of mine. But that said, cutting 151,969 words, or over 50%, begs a question in a different stratosphere, the big fuzzy question of “What’s this novel all about?”

I’ve had a couple friends say to me, “Just decide what it’s about and cut everything that’s not that.”

So what’s the formula for that? Forgive me for being dense, but do you say, “Okay. My novel’s theme is boils down to this one word – salvation. Anything that ain’t about that, I’ll cut”?

What if your mind sees connections among all things? What if every act of your characters could arguably rationalized as part of this mission of salvation – only expressed in myriad, bizarre ways? What if Charles Baxter just taught you in his essay, “On Defamiliarization” (Burning Down the House) that instead of pursuing a central theme, the “arrows” of your characterization need to “point in all directions”? How to balance word count with that deep-sea exploration?

What if the focusing word you choose is too abstract? Do you limit it to something more concrete and therefore, increase its length to a phrase, and say, “Okay, the novel’s about Saving Jane?”

Like math, there must be a right answer to this.

I’m reminded of a Pulitz Surprise we teachers used to all chuckle over, gathered by a wonderful colleague who helped relieve our stress with the hilarious malapropisms and misstatements of student essays. Wrote this one child: “Folks, it all comes down to one word: mass destruction.”

I’m that student writer. If you can say it in two rather than one, why, by all means!

In my search for an A on this word problem, David Edelman, author of Infoquake, has given me much comfort. In his blog he argues that the novel has been artificially restrained by the medium and thus the form. He says, “The medium of the novel is that 8″ x 12″ hunk of pulped wood, while the form of the novel is the 120,000 words of prose that gets inked onto the surface. But the point I’m trying to make here (as Frank Lloyd Wright and Marshall McLuhan made long before me) is that those two things are inextricably tied together. The medium of the novel is its form.” Then he says, “There’s nothing magical about the size, shape, and length of a novel. There’s no divine law which states that the perfect size of a story is between 80,000 and 150,000 words. That just happens to be the number of words that will comfortably fit in your hands using standard twentieth century printing technology.” He explores the e-medium as better suited to delivering art, unlimited art, whatever size we see fit.

So if the 400 page limit for commercial fiction is a paradigm we’re stuck in, on the cusp of bigger technologies that might be slim and waterproof and light enough some day for bathtub-ready reading, then I can be an edgy author who busts open that paradigm, right? I can keep my 264,329 or any length whatsoever and paradigms be damned.

Of course I’m posturing. What I really want is to engage fellow authors struggling with this same issue with what gets them writing what’s right for the piece rather than what’s right numerically. Word counts are beautiful constraints, the convent room or flower to keep us focused, but they might also force us into too clinical and rational a computation of our literary purposes.

Do you believe in the 150,000-word paradigm for the novel? Why or why not?
How do you know when a story is finished?
How do you keep the narrative line focused?
How does word count help or hinder your writing efforts?

Edelman also riffs on why popular songs are usually three to five minutes. So I'm off to tell my musician husband the field is open and he’s free to create the bluegrass equivalent of a Grateful Dead song.

Today's Writing Goal: Let my characters pursue their actions with yearning. Follow their surprising actions where the contradictory and the concealed, as Baxter says, can surface. Fight formulaic passivity, dullness, transparency, or enigma.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


Option 1: Big Books, Little Books

What’s the longest book you’ve ever read? The shortest? Do you like longer or shorter books? Why?

Imagine that you own a publishing company and you can publish a book of any length. Write a letter to the people who work with you explaining the best number of words or pages for a book and why you believe this length works the best.

Option 2: Books of the Future

Imagine what books will be like 25 years from now. Will books always look the way they do now? Will they be made of paper and a certain length?

Describe a scene where you picture yourself reading a book. What will the book look like? Feel like? Sound like? Smell like? Where will you get your book?

Secondary and Adult

Option 1:

Imagine that you own a publishing company and you can publish a book of any length. Write a memo to the people who work with you explaining the best number of words or pages for a book and why you believe this length works the best. Then ask for your employees to offer contradictory opinions and argue for different lengths. Step into the shoes of two other employees who argue for different lengths than you, and write their responses to your memo.

Then write a memo to the company sharing your final decision and your justification for it.

Option 2:

What’s the longest novel you’ve ever read? Estimate its page or word count. Did you enjoy reading a novel of such length? Why or why not?

It’s been argued that the reason the average novel is 150,000 words is because that’s what most paperbacks -- and people – can handle. If books are all someday offered electronically, a novel could have the option of being twenty times this size or any length the writer chooses.

Will books always look the way they do now? Will they be made of paper and a certain length? Imagine what books will be like 25 years from now. Describe a scene where you picture yourself reading a book. What will the book look like? Feel like? Sound like? Smell like? Where will you get your book? Do electronic options – e-books – enhance or detract from the reading experience? Why or why not?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Surviving the Crytique

"It may be unfair to celebrate a writer for being so publicly rejected and railed against, but 40 years’ perspective should allow us to credit Styron for taking the risk of writing “The Confessions” and to appreciate the courage of the 10 writers who dissected it in searing detail. Their confrontation helped shatter the idea that there can or should be one version of “how slavery was”; now we have a hundred different versions — some omnipresent, some long silenced, some real, some fictional — telling a messier, trickier, less comforting story. This may not be the “common history” James Baldwin spoke of, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.”

Jess Row, “Styron’s Choice” (thanks to my colleague Bob Mustin, writer and blogger, who shared this article with me)

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 264, 264. 3099 words gone!

Page Count for the Novel: 938

Critics and critiques. William Styron could speak to them. We need critics in a civil, democratic society that values dialogue and progress. Writers need to hear what works and what doesn’t when they make art. All of us need to dialogue about what’s Good, what’s Bad, what Matters. But what happens when critiques are “cry-tiques,” as my dad calls them – lists of all the wrongs the artist has committed with no celebration, recognition, or suggestions for growth? Why is it that so often the outcome of critique is tears?

We need to pause briefly for station identification: this writer is what you call a Quick Crier. I tear up at commercials. (I am impervious to Lifetime movie plotlines, if that gives me any credibility.) Knowing my high sensitivity may negate the import of my comments for some, but I’d like to argue that my susceptible antennae add weight to this dialogue. Sensitivity, as long as it works both ways, helps a critic anticipate how criticisms will be received. I’ve met critics who lack this gift and this habit of mind. Yet it can be taught. So listen up, critics, the Teach is talking. She’s talking about a certain type of critic -- the editor or the professor -- who needs to think more with the soul.

When your calling is to edit, a twofold mission of critique and coach, you can’t abandon the latter task. Some editors and teachers aren’t even aware their second job is coaching. They give their all to scrutinizing the work as if it’s already published and deal only in harshness. They pick up a red megaphone and begin hazing. This type of critic’s cry is so loud as to drown out the original work. So in love with the sound of his own voice, such a critic can’t imagine the purpose of the writer’s work nor the toil it took to get there. She is too busy talking at the artist, uninterested in any sort of exchange.

After my years of teaching tender egos in middle and high school classrooms, I am schooled in one thing: don’t kill the spirit of the future writer. Nurture it. Send the child back to that drawing board to try, try, try again. I don’t care how old you are or how bad you are at your artistic endeavor; if you have the desire to try again and you’re willing to listen, that’s all I need to coach you. If you believe in Edison’s mantra of 99% perspiration to 1% inspiration, full of earnest, well-meaning effort willing to surrender a work to comment, nay, pay for a critique, there is no need for you to go home crying. You should return home pumped to run the next scrimmage, to lift some weights, to spend the years it may take to get things better. No one’s promising you’ll get drafted to years in the pros with million-dollar glory. What I’m promising is that I’ll help you get better, taking you from where you are now to the next level. Coaching is teaching. So you can’t just call the play and pass the ball; you must show someone how to do those things.

When I submitted a manuscript of many pages and many years to a freelance editor, also a published author, my pages were returned with a deep sigh, “It’s sooooo long,” (as if I had done her, a paid professional, a disservice) followed by a long list of my wrongs. I asked and looked for direction but could not find any specific suggestions. For example, I would have really appreciated, “Let’s look at this passage and what I mean by ‘overwritten.’ Here you have a line of dialogue and then here you repeat yourself with five lines of interior monologue, saying the same thing. Cut, cut, cut.” There were no such specifics. I did get a few generalizations of “Revisit the plot and think about what this story’s really about.” Then the critique turned wildly personal. “I can’t stand your main character,” this editor said. Okay, I said. What can’t you stand? “I found her impulsive and rudderless.” (I’m paraphrasing here because I’m pretty sure that one of those words is not in my editor’s vocabulary, and there was my first mistake: not vetting the literary background of this editor. Though a published writer, she has neither professional editing credentials nor a college background that might have schooled her before undertaking an enterprise as serious as editing. Yet her Web site advertises her editing skills. Caveat Emptor.)

If I sound like a snob, stop right there, since I’ve never believed a college degree confers wisdom, empathy, or good sense. But like John Gardner says, college should teach you about academic discussion and Socratic dialogue. It should teach you to keep an open mind when dealing in ideas. Being told in tones of high umbrage, nay, disgust, that your protagonist is impulsive and rudderless and then, with an actual sneer, “If I had children in a public school, I’d never send them to this teacher,” is not objective critique. It's a fair judgment -- for a parent choosing his child’s school. But what does that isolated comment, sans follow-up, sans constructive criticism, have to do with the craft of writing? A flawed character and a badly-crafted character aren’t the same beast. The real questions to explore instead are, Do this characters’ flaws matter to the story? Is the story of this flawed person’s journey inherently interesting or significant, or are the flaws such – or the descriptions such – that they impede the story’s progress?

Here’s what the editor could have told me:

“I found myself repelled by your character’s impulsivity and rudderlessness. I wanted to see her think before she acted at least once. I wanted to have more faith in her. Does it matter to you that her actions of x, y, and z reduce her credibility? Is that your intent, to paint a picture of a character who’s a novice, rudderless teacher? Also, I found plot events, fueled by her choices, lacking a logical connection of cause and effect. I would suggest that you try outlining the plot in a systematic, calculated fashion: ‘A leads to B, which leads to C.’ That may remove some of this sense of the protagonist jumping from one square to another without any clear forward motion or urge, that yearning Robert Olen Butler discusses in From Where You Dream). We as readers must be propelled by that character yearning and motion so that we want to take the journey with your character, no matter how flawed. If she’s a train wreck, that’s fine; we won’t look away unless we have faith that this train wreck has some logic and meaning for its existence. While there can be consciously-constructed plot lines meant to show random motion, that doesn’t seem to be your purpose here. Am I right?

I do see Daria thinking before she makes choice x in Chapter One. That was a particularly nice passage when she pursues Selma and gets slapped back. I would follow that lead.”

Now that kind of comment I can handle.

If said editor wanted to argue she wasn’t getting paid to write such detailed commentary, she could have told me such thoughts in person. Could have pointed to a relevant, starred passage. Hey, I take great notes.

This writer can do but she can’t teach. Woe betides those students who get the master craftsman who can’t talk shop.

I have one theory about why certain editors want to make you cry. They harbor a secret, even unconscious hope that you’ll go home and abandon the manuscript. These critics believe in The Scarcity Model: that there’s just not enough art and money to go around. There is only enough room in this world for a few to succeed, so you have to scrap and edge out those who might win. Put a novice writer in her place and you narrow the odds in your favor.

Writing is a tough business. It’s hard not to feel like a failure when you see someone’s success, or potential success, because you’re busy banging your head against too many walls. But when you edit you must adopt a teacher persona and forget all that work and effort toward self-promotion and submission. You must do what you are paid to do.

When I described the horror of my experience meeting with this editor (I’m leaving out all the other ugly parts not relevant here, like plain meanness and tactlessness), I had a number of friends who said, “You think this writer’s jealous of you?”

“Jealous of what?” I said with a laugh. “I’ve got miles to go before I sleep! I won’t be cutting her out of the market any time soon.”

Those friends seemed to think that jealousy can motivate a certain type of critic.

I won’t tell you what I paid this person but I will tell you what I got for free from my dear friends Chip and Nance.

Chip read every page of an early draft of the whole, convoluted beast that was my manuscript and told me when he was disappointed with a plot turn and delighted by a description. He fed my soul with his authentic reactions and his kind encouragements. He coached me to keep sending him stuff. I was even more motivated to make things good, knowing he’d be looking and vetting.

From my friend Nance, I got two single-sided pages of detailed feedback. Let me stop for some of the highlights, places where she, like Chip, was just the coach I needed:

“Ok, just finished your last chapter. First of all, CONGRATULATIONS!
Wowzers. What an impressive creative endeavor. I really got to know Daria and cared what happened to her.

I think there is a lot of talking and thinking. Totally true to life but not what I want in a novel. Sometimes it feels like events are happening in real time. But I want to be taken on a different kind of journey. I've pointed out some specific instances. I think there needs to be more action, less narration of Daria's inner thoughts and her outer processing convos with various friends. She often picks up the phone to tell other characters about what is happening.

There are a lot of characters to keep track of and I wonder if you can whittle it down. I'm gonna try to list 'em out here real quick, to see what I remember….”

And so it goes. She makes several suggestions about how to resolve a plot line, about her wishes for the ending of the story, about two minor characters and a major who need to go, about an event that has no logical consequence…did I mention how helpful this feedback is?

The tone of the critique helps immensely. Nance wants to coach me, not hinder me. She wants me to make great art, not shoddy art. And she wants me to finish. After reading her detailed suggestions, I rolled up my sleeves. The other critic stopped me cold for about a month.

As Jess Row indicates in his analysis of the critiques of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, it takes courage to be a decent critic. You must not only know your craft but you must study it with discipline. You must study how to communicate that craft to others. You must keep foremost in your mind the heart and spirit of the soul before you, struggling to achieve the Good, able to rise above her own weakness and incompetence to craft Beauty. It also takes courage to be a decent writer, one who can speak truth back to those critics who would destroy.

This Confession of Lyn Hawks is a rusty voice calling for fair and educated critics who believe in Abundance.

Today's Writing Goal: Cut at least another 1,000 words.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others. © Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


What Starts or Stops the Crying?

Have you ever done something and the result was someone cried? Have you ever helped someone stop crying and made them feel better? Tell that story. What happened? Why do you think things happened that way? What choices did you make that you wouldn’t make again?

Then write the answer to this question: What do you know now that you didn’t know then? You might consider questions such as:

What starts someone crying?
What stops crying?

Why We Cry

Does it ever help to cry sometimes? Or does it always hurt? Tell a story about when you or someone else cried and how you feel about it now. Are you glad there was crying? Why or why not? Do you wish it hadn’t happened? Why or why not? What does your family say about crying? Do you know why your family says this?


Option #1: Think of a time when someone – a parent, coach, teacher, tutor, older sibling, relative – gave you feedback on something you were doing or had done. What criticism did you receive? Was it helpful criticism?

Write a mini-meditation on criticism: what works and what doesn’t. Give examples of times when you received constructive or destructive criticism. Let your thoughts meander from one anecdote to another, analyzing the ways you have been told what’s good and not so good about your actions and accomplishments. End you meditation with epiphanies you have about criticism. What kind of criticism works? How important is how it’s said? When is criticism tough love and when is it tough hate? What advice do you have for critics you’ve known? For yourself when you offer criticism?

Option #2: Think of a time when someone – a parent, coach, teacher, tutor, older sibling, relative – gave you feedback on something you were doing or had done. What criticism did you receive? Was it helpful criticism?

Write a letter to this person telling the person how you feel about the criticism. Give your honest reaction. Weigh the person’s words and see if there is truth from which you can learn. This may be a letter you never send, but say what needs to be said.

Or you can write a letter to a person whom you criticized and tell them how you feel now about that choice and experience.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Rescue Me…or My Reader.

“We explain to the reader exactly how to read the story. In doing so we smother any subtlety in the piece and insult the reader. We're so afraid that he or she will miss the point or that the story isn't good enough to make the point on it's own that we throw in the "here's the moral" section toward the end.”

-- Kimberly Culbertson, “Helicopter Authoring”

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 267,392. 1430 words gone!

Page Count for the Novel: 944 (As I prepared a manuscript for submission and was asked for 1” margins, I got rid of 1.25 right/left margins on this manuscript, and funny how that helped! But all we really care about here is the word count.)

My friend, an actress and a writer, shared an observation that some artists indulge rescue fantasies. These fantasies depend on a dualistic view of the artist’s life: either you remain enslaved at your current workplace or someone magically “discovers” you as you slave at your art in anonymity eating your ramen and refried beans. There’s no in between. Your choices are work-work-work (which equals money but misery) or art-art-art (which equals joy but penury) but never the two shall meet. Either you sell out or you fail; it’s an Occam’s Razor equation.

I subscribe to the old-fashioned, Faulknerian school: If you can, keep your day job at the post office and apply seat of the pants to seat of the chair in the wee hours and late at night. Or, if you’re too unhip or just plain exhausted to stay up late, then get to workin’ on those nights while others gad about.

By the way, my friend and I tried to recall a term for “butt to chair” our fiction writing professor Ehud Havazelet mentioned back in 1987 and all I found on Google was “siedfleisch,” which I believe means “simmering meat” in German. Ehud, could you have meant that? One’s derriere must needs feel the heat if the writing is to go well. Otherwise the writing isn’t honest.

I can’t get discovered unless I put my work out there, and I can only put my work out there if I do it. The rescue fantasy plays out in reality every time we avoid the paper or the keyboard. We rescue ourselves from the hard work of self-discovery, one of the big reasons artists stray. Staring at yourself in the mirror and facing all the pain and ugliness art stirs up is a great reason to run away -- very far away. Never mind the fact that working by one’s lonesome and correcting all the flaws that crop up in that manuscript, why, that’s not much fun but sweaty, angsty, and destructive, about as alluring as scrubbing floors with vinegar: virtuous it may be, environmentally sound, but stinking to your own personal brand of hell.

Yet again: That rescuing agent or editor can’t appear till you build it.

Likewise the rescue of American kids nationwide, occurring right now as thousands of helicoptering parents release their children onto college campuses, it’s the same delusion, really. A helicopter parent believes that if forced to work alone, the child shall fail. Wouldn’t it all be better if a fairy godmama stuck around and handled registration, move-in, first day of class, you know, everything?

I like how Kimberly Culbertson, editor of Relief Journal, turns this cultural phenomena back on us writers who are guilty of treating our artistic works as babes incapable of survival. (You could argue that the rescue-fantasy artist doesn’t even grant her babe conception; she hovers over the ideas in her mind but births nothing. “See, I’m gonna write this book one day…”) Culbertson explains how authors hover over their works with heavy moralizing.

Telling the point (as if there were just one) prevents a reader from growing along with our manuscripts. I’ll take this concept a step further: I helicopter parent in my writing with

-- all kinds of editorial commentary, the tell-all mental meanderings of this or that character, which is no substitute for action;
-- painting parts of scenes the reader can fill in with his own imagination; and
-- crafting top-heavy symbolism threatening to tumble over and bruise the reader as she’s strolling through. Never mind the dangers of overwrought metaphors. (Hey, it’s Friday night and I’m tired.)

I could go on; I’m building a list of my helicoptering faults. On my desk is a quotation from Charles Baxter that reminds me of my protagonist’s interior monologue knowing WAY too much all the time:

“Nobody cares, in fiction, what a character thinks until a character acts on those ideas. You can think anything you want to and it won’t matter until your ideas begin to have certain dramatic consequences.”

Art doesn’t require superheroes flying in at the last second. In fact, it’s decidedly workaday, unglamorous, and slimy with perspiration. So is life. Kids and artistic works need to live it. Let them breathe, let them stretch, let them skin some knees. They’ll find their way.

Today's Writing Goal: Cut at least another 1,000 (aren’t I cocky) and move a huge scene later in the novel because right now it interrupts momentum like a boulder in the road. Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: Up On High

Have you ever flown in a plane or a helicopter? Have you ever stood on something that is several feet high? Then you know what it’s like to look down on people, places, animals, land, and things and see how much smaller they are. How did you feel when you were up there?

Pretend you are in a plane, a helicopter, or on top of the tallest building you have ever seen. Now imagine that you can fly anywhere to help someone or something. Write a short story after thinking about these questions:

-- Who or what will you help?
-- Why?
-- How will you help them?
-- Did it work? Why or why not?
-- What will happen next?

You can also imagine the opposite story: picture that you are the person on the ground. Who or what will come help you, and why? How do you feel about it?

Secondary and Adult: Up on High

Are you an introvert or an extrovert, meaning, do you tend to get your energy from being alone, or do you get your energy from being around people? Or are you a person who truly enjoys both states of being?

Write about a time when you or someone did what’s called “helicoptering”: hanging around, hovering, trying to help another person.

-- Express your feelings and the feelings you imagine the other person had.
-- How did the situation unfold?
-- What choices did people make? What were the consequences?
-- Would you experience that situation again if you could? Why or why not?

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Right to Write?

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

Atticus Finch to Scout in Harper Lee’s
To Kill a Mockingbird

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 268,822. My goal was to cut 825; I cut 491. 334 shy of my goal.

Rationalization: Sometimes you gotta move things around before you finally cut them. I’m saying my last goodbyes to some passages.

Page Count for the Novel: 1002

What do writers have the right to write?

Free speech says, “Anything save “Fire!” in a crowded theater.” But to paraphrase St. Paul – “almost anything” may be possible, but it ain’t all permissible.

Again, to invoke my husband’s bluegrass mantra: Just because you can, that don’t mean you should.

I’ve potentially trespassed, according to some -- a former writing group and from a friend and mentor, all of whose opinions I respect greatly.

The short story appearing in Relief Journal’s Volume 2.3 comes from a perspective some would not consider right for a white girl. I chose to write from the point of view of someone of a different race.

I’d rather you support Relief Journal than give away the story (by the way: no payment in it for me if you purchase). For now, I do want to meditate on two reactions I received at earlier drafts of this story.

Said someone in my writer’s group: “I’m not sure you have the right to write this story.” I can’t interpret her meaning with 100% accuracy, but I can imagine that perhaps the issue wasn’t about my attempt to walk in the shoes of this character. Rather, one translation might be, “Follow the flights of imagination, especially in order to walk in someone else’s moccasins, but don’t try publishing this.” In other words, exercises promoting empathy and cross-cultural understanding are good, but putting a story out for public consumption smacks of, “Look at me, I know what I’m talking about.” And the follow-up question would be, “How on earth could you truly know?” A point well worth raising.

Said my friend and mentor in an e-mail to me, “(It’s) something about the audacity/privilege of a white woman to imagine she could speak for a black woman when the white woman couldn't (by definition) have experienced some of the episodes the black mother did. . . I do have concern about the perspective, however, as presumably, it is projection. I sit here asking myself if this story challenges white supremacist norms and consciousness by taking the reader inside this situation - or if it perpetuates white supremacist norms and consciousness in a subtle, complex way.”

These are valuable questions. To me, they are just the kind of questions literature should inspire for thoughtful readers such as my friend. She also added at one point, “Yet I liked the story and thought it was important to read.”

I like my friend’s use of the word “projection.” There is no way I can’t project both myself into a character of another race as well as project my assumptions, stereotypes, and norms into this character. I can’t escape it as a white person, and if I were black, or a man, or any other human permutation, I would be in the same boat. I will read another’s life as a book filled with my own bias.

Again, I can’t speak with 100% accuracy here either, but my friend’s comment gets at the problem of power – that whites still speak from paradigms and positions of dominance – and therefore whites, when writing any sort of fiction, risk yet another trespass in keeping with slavery, Jim Crow, blackface, Elvis stealing blues, and other ways whites have either oppressed or adopted what they conceive to be “blackness.”

What would then mitigate such as act as mine that’s carried out in this historical and racial context? I would say, Redeeming answers to the following questions:

Does the story reveal something true of humanity rather than sketch a stereotype? Is the character a unique individual with a special story to tell?
Does the story more closely connect readers across racial and cultural lines?
Does the story use its conflict to explore redemption? Who or what is redeemed, and why?
Does the reader learn something?
Do I, the writer, learn something?

If you read the story, tell me what you think. Or tell me your thoughts on this issue of point of view and whether or not the author’s race is crucial to a story’s authority, authenticity, and truthfulness.

I will say this: I think publishing this story in 2008, rather than 1998, 1988, 1978, or 1968 (the year of my birth and Dr. King’s assassination) is much more permissible than it ever was. Your thoughts on that subject would be appreciated, too!

Robert Olen Butler once commented in an interview (and this is my paraphrase, since I searched unsuccessfully for that interview online) that as a Midwestern, middle-aged white male who grew up with two parents happily married he has more in common with a Vietnamese woman living with her happily-married parents – as opposed to his trying to write the story of a Midwestern, middle-aged white male whose family suffers from divorce. It’s a fascinating thought, and to me a hopeful, life-affirming one, that as writers we can bridge these seemingly vast canyons with our words and imaginations. I treasure stories from Eudora Welty and Doris Betts who walk beautifully and sensitively in the shoes of black women, just as I treasure a man’s walk in the shoes of three women, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

Then again, the road to hell is paved with all kinds of good, patronizing, and self-satisfied intentions.

In no way am I done with this topic. Will return to it soon.

Today's Writing Goal: I didn’t meet my last writing goal by 334 words. I’ll shoot down the middle and try to cut 500 words by the next tally, and I will edit the hard copy (8 pages) awaiting me on my desk. (I printed out all 1040-some and have been hard-copy-editing, which leads to these word count goals. After I entered changes through page 500, I stopped and printed again and am now cutting more.)

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: What color are you?

Colors express all kinds of feelings, and we use language to help describe how we feel. Some people say, “I am blue,” when they are sad, and “I’m seeing red,” when they are angry. Can you think of any other ways we use colors to describe feelings? Try yellow and green and see what you might have heard.

Describe how you have felt today, yesterday, and the day before. Think of times when you felt sadness, anger, joy, peace, jealousy, and fear. Draw a picture of your heart and divide it up like a pizza or a patchwork quilt. Then use any color to color in parts of your heart that have those feelings. Match a color to each feeling

Now write about one of those feelings. Begin with this sentence, “When I feel ___________(name the emotion), I am ______________ (name the color).” Now tell a story about that time. Use lots of detail: what did you see, hear, smell, taste, and/or touch that day you had this feeling?”

Secondary and Adult:

We know that people discriminate based on skin color. But we also know the famous phrase and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King that asks us to judge people not by race but by the “content of their character.” In fact, race is not well-defined by anthropologists and sociologists. So why shouldn’t we “color” ourselves? When we think of this societal convention identifying people by race and juxtapose it against the color wheel we know from art class, suddenly skin color can lose its significance. Which is not to say that race and racism don’t matter, but rather, that if we can step away from the world and all its judgments for a moment, we can ask, How do I color myself?

Name all the colors you know, from primary to secondary to every shade of color that is important to you. Then pick one of the following two prompts.

Color Me Red, Color Me Blue: Pick the colors that best suit your personality, your interests, and your life experience. Write a self-description that begins, “Color me _____ (pick the color) because…”

Inventing Idioms: You may have heard, “I’m blue” when someone is sad or other colors used to describe emotions. Name some other colors and how they are used in common expressions (also known as idioms).

Now invent some new expressions.

You can use metaphor, such as “I’m blue,” where you give an emotion a color.

You can use an action with an implied metaphor, such as “I’m seeing red,” where red represents the emotion of anger and the action of seeing is part of that metaphor’s vehicle.

Start a story or a personal essay where this new idiom begins the description of your emotional experience.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

What a Relief

"I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get going, rather than retreat.”

-- Sylvester Stallone

Today’s Word Count: 269,313 (675 words gone!)

Page Count: 1006 (Okay, so I didn’t make my goal of cutting 1500+ words. See my rationalization at the close of this post)

It’s August 17, 2008, and that means Relief Journal is publishing Volume 2.3. Guess who’s in there?

My short story, “Midrift,” thrice rejected, is now published, official and bound, for real. This stopgap story has given me so much hope. Now I join a long list of authors who made it past the marathon route of rejections to catch their breath with a “yes”! I like author and illustrator Debbie Ohi’s list of hope.

“Midrift” had an inauspicious start back in 2004 when my writing group challenged the first draft. Members asked whether I had the right to write this story. (I’m contemplating writing a “Right to Write” post to explore that controversy.) But I am grateful for their questions because the scrutiny made me edit relentlessly and drew me closer to my character and subject. I decided with the ire of a rejected writer I did have a right to write and must finish it.

Over the next few years the story was rejected by three other literary magazines. Each rejection sent me back to revision before I submitted again.

Then I submitted it to Relief. I received no response. Eight months later, I summoned the courage to try the journal, noting in my cover letter I’d read about a brief glitch in the online submission system and I wanted to make sure my work had been received.

Within two months Relief sent me a “You’re on the short list” e-mail, then a congratulations e-mail four months after that, and then I was editing galleys this past July.

This has been my experience – some time spent shouting into a void, and later, an echo back. Rejections have evolved from form letters to personal encouragements, perhaps because every rejection inspires rewrites and a requisite lapse of time to wrap my head around what the story’s really about.

The first draft of my story “3.0” received this message from editor Linda Swanson-Davies of Glimmer Train:

“Although your work did not make it all the way to the top 25 list, it did make it a long way through the January 08 Family Matters judging (top 5% of about 1,200 submissions!) and was indeed a finalist. It was an excellent read… Thanks again for letting us read your work—we will look forward to more in the future!”

And then there was The Missouri Review’s response to a new draft:

“Though the piece was short, it was still vivid and emotionally resonant. The premise was incredibly fresh -- a granddaughter re-imagining her grandmother's life, and through her contemplations learning about her own life. We'd like to see more from you based on the strengths of this piece. We wish you the best of luck publishing your work and hope you'll consider sending us more in the future.”

Now “3.0” awaits a response from a Writers’ Group of the Triad Sixth Biennal Greensboro Awards contest, and if it doesn’t win there, I’m off to a few other journals, including Zoetrope all-story.

I write these stopgap stories for several reasons, not the least of which is I have no other choice but to tell tales as they come to me. But I see other benefits such as the toughening of my writer’s mettle and the need for relief – read, communication with the outside world to know I’m heard, I’m heard! – whenever the novel and I lose momentum.

And my rationalization for not cutting the 1500+ words? In the latest pages I haven’t stumbled on a scene that feels like a boulder in the road; everything I’m editing now has headlong momentum. That may not be the best reason to leave scenes in, because “headlong” can translate to “hectic” and “frantic” writing when I’m striving for something else. I also have to weigh the fact that I stopped reading Ian McEwan’s Saturday the other day when the story got too steep for me. It took emotional effort to stay with it, not because the writing isn’t brilliant, but because I wasn’t ready. That reaction speaks about me much more than it does McEwan’s story. I need a day or two, and then I’ll continue the climb along with him.

Perhaps rejections and acceptances should be viewed this way: as gifts to the public and the writer who are ready when they’re ready and not before – and not when we think they should be.

Today's Writing Goal: I didn’t meet my last writing goal by 825 words. I’ll cut that by the next tally and continue to strive for greater connectivity among scenes. I’m currently backtracking through the places just edited, linking scenes better and beating the bushes for dead words. They keep tumbling out.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


Have you ever tried to be someone’s friend but the person didn’t want to be yours? Have you ever been picked last for a team? Have you ever waited for someone and the person did not arrive? Think about a tough time when you felt rejected. It may hurt to remember it, but sometimes, we have to think about difficult times to understand how to get through them.

Tell the story of what happened, just as you remember. Include what you felt and what was said. Describe the place where it happened.

Now, tell another story. Choose between two options:

Tell the story again. Tell it the way you wish it happened. Share your feelings, what was said, where you were. OR

Tell the story of a time when you rejected someone else. Tell the story of what happened, just as you remember. Include what you felt and what was said. Describe the place where it happened.

Share your story with someone you trust and talk about how to feel better after a time of rejection. If you have rejected someone else, can you do something to make the situation better?

Use the elementary prompt or the following:

There is power in faith. It takes two forms – saying yes and saying no.

I Believe Manifesto

Write a manifesto listing ten things you believe. Do you believe in love with honesty? Do you believe in silent cell phones? Do you believe in organic produce? Whatever you believe, from the sublime to mundane, list it.

Then write the yin to this yang, the I Reject Manifesto. Write a list of ten things you reject.

Let one of the lines from either manifesto inspire the beginning of a piece of writing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Go Super-Slo-Mo Till It's Time

Today’s Word Count: 269,988 (1545 words gone!)

Page Count: 1009

“If animals could speak, the dog would be a blundering outspoken fellow; but the cat would have the rare grace of never saying a word too much.”

-- Mark Twain

As I write this post, my cat is striking the pose in my blog banner. He has many poses, all of which I find ridiculously precious, but it’s always auspicious to see his life imitating my (I mean, his) blog. This cat is my serenity icon and a constant reminder that slowing down is good and yet saying too much is not.

I’m getting pretty boastful about my slashing, but it’s happening of its own accord, finally after years of blindness, as if someone hit a switch in my brain and now I see, I see! Purple prose has turned neon, flashing “CUT ME!” whenever I edit.

Here’s some of the noisy, tacky stuff that’s gotta go. In a prior draft, I wrote a line of dialogue where a student clamors for a teacher’s attention. Following that you read, “His urgency made everyone pause and turn.”

Ugh! Doesn’t “turn” imply a “pause”? Then, soon after that:

“With great flourish he whipped out a sheet of notebook paper where he’d drawn a perfect caricature…”

Doesn’t the verb “whipped” say plenty? And since this character doodles through every class up to this point, do I need to mention the “notebook paper”?

Now it reads. “His urgency made everyone turn. He whipped out a sheet where he’d drawn a perfect caricature…”

Once 24 words, now 16. Not brilliant writing, just cleaner.

But before I beat myself up too much for overwriting, I have to honor the writing process: Certain writers need to see every frame in super-slo-mo during the early stages. And like Orson Welles used to say in that Paul Masson wine commercial, “We will sell no wine before its time.” All in good time, this novel.

When I write, I slip into the altered consciousness zone where I live through a scene. Every little gesture plays out in my head. This can make a scene both vivid and ten pages too long. That’s a lot of what I’m cutting.

Some sports like baseball, basketball, and tennis struggle with whether or not to go to instant replay. I’ll swear by super-slo-mo until the World Series, the playoffs, and Wimbledon. If the Big Game is the novel itself, the final draft, readers just want you to play the darn thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (blessings on the life and works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who left us August 3, 2008) or Ian McEwan’s Saturday; the long-day novel is just as compelling as a Michener saga. It’s the choice of the right words and moments, not every single gesture, that readers want.

Speaking of readers: if you believe like most writers do that one cannot read without writing and write without reading, please visit my colleague Bob Mustin’s blog and see what meaty books he’s perusing and what treasures he’s discovered that can help a writer. Bob and I met the summer of 2003 when we both attended NCWN’s Elizabeth Daniels Squire Writers in Residence Program, led by the wonderful Doris Betts.

A final thought: I heard a story about a famous writer who spent ten years writing a novel of 1,000 pages. The author’s partner asked the author to narrow the story down to one word. The author did. Then the partner said, “Now take out everything that isn’t about that.” The author has now published the novel of 200 pages. But what do you do with a teeming, hyperactive mind that sees connections everywhere? I found the abstract word from which my novel springs and somehow I can still link every scene to it. Right now, what gets me cutting is the drag effect of super-slo-mo scenes. Hey, whatever keeps you moving.

I’d be really happy if I could slash this novel in half. Only 507 pages to go.

Today's Writing Goal: I beat my last writing goal by 245 words. I’ll cut 2,000 words by the next tally and strive for greater connectivity among scenes – cause leading to effect leading to cause.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


Choose one of the following thirty-second-or-less events and describe all the interesting people, places, and things that might appear during that thirty seconds.

-- A girl drops her ice cream cone from the fifty-secondth floor of a building
-- A runner competes in a fifty-yard dash
-- A contestant sings a song to audition for a part
-- A dog chases a cat through several streets of a neighborhood

After you write the scene, talk with a partner and choose the most interesting moment. Now, slow that moment down and write four sentences describing everything that can happen in that very few seconds. What does the person or animal see, feel, smell, hear, taste, and touch during that few seconds?

Secondary and Adult:

Choose one of the following sets of characters (parent and child, two lovers, or a teacher and a student) and one of the following issues (food, space, or time) and write a dialogue. Begin with a line of dialogue and write for ten minutes as fast as you can, letting character names, histories, and motivations emerge as necessary during the fighting. Choose an omniscient point of view for now and record every thought each character has privately; describe every gesture; record every detail of the setting as your characters move through it.

After ten minutes is up, fold up your paper(s) so you can’t read the scene. On a separate piece of paper fill in this blank: This story is about ___________ (insert abstract noun). The noun must be the intangible idea-word such as love, peace, jealousy, salvation – you get the idea. This is word is your “Home Base” to which you will return.

Now open up your paper again and home in on the parts that best communicate this idea. Strike out any details that don’t get at this idea. If you are having trouble homing in, share the word with a partner and ask him/her to do some cutting for you.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Behind the Scenes: Outtakes

“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

--- Michael Crichton

Today’s Word Count: 271, 533 (1374 words gone!)
Page Count: 1013

It used to be you couldn’t see the film clips that hit the cutting room floor. That was until the DVD business got excited about “Special Features,” which included tons of outtakes. When you view certain footage you think, Good thing they left that out! Other clips make you wince at the tough call a director or editor had to make.

Today I post one of my castoffs, and you’ll fast see the reason it got cut. It’s back story, the below-the-surface iceberg stuff Hemingway talked about. It informed my character development while I was drafting but it doesn’t help narrative flow. In fact, it’s very much a big fat ice-beast lurking in the path of my reader. It stops the momentum and resounds with a big ol TWANG when you hit it. (A must-read is Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction). A story “thrums” along, he says, till you the writer leave junk -- trash, nails, anything – right in the middle of the road that readers run over. Boom, there’s a flat. The moment is gone and the reader realizes, “Oh, yeah, I’m reading.”

This deleted passage has been stuffed in the “excess_file.” If I’m waffling, it could go into the “save_and_move_file” because I trick myself into cutting by thinking I’ll hunt for it later.

Not likely. And the reader won’t miss it one bit.

I’m talking all rough and tough about cutting but what you have to realize is how important the big derriere of that iceberg is to writing. All that back story isn’t an obstacle while you’re honing that peak that everyone gets to see and marvel at. My characters wouldn’t be rich if they didn’t have a history. Here is some of my protagonist’s upbringing, knowledge that helps me inform her daily choices, but trivia the reader can do without:

I grew up in a tiny ranch house in Burlingame. Dad patched it repeatedly with his workman’s savvy, a postage-stamp front yard boasting a riot of my mother’s flowers. She did her own gardening in those days before hiring out the “illegals” she now despises. In that neighborhood I escaped to the Reillys’ (fellow Irish) or the Washingtons’ (African-American) for the foosball tables, basketball hoops, and firecrackers. There we had backyard barbecues with people Mom barely tolerated while Dad reveled in them. He bowled and drank beer with “the blues” just to harass her: postal carriers, construction workers, waitresses. On that street people worked hard and played hard; morning sunlight glinted off broken glass outside the Reilly’s and off the Pontiac where Mr. Washington spent the night. Mom hated the drama; she kept our doors bolted with chairs up against them. She played Mozart at volume 11 to drown out neighbors on the night prowl.

The sacrifice of this 155 words gave me permission to write a whole new scene. Chances are that one will get cut, too, but right now it feels good to have it in, since I’m busy fleshing out another character and his role in the story and figuring out what’s essential.

Note also the tone of this flashback sounds very much like a godly narrator, even with first-person narration, a character stopped in her tracks to spin you a yarn and act as authority. Meanwhile you as reader are looking around, saying, “Hey, what happened to the story?”

My story runs on dialogue and scene, not summary. Some authors like Jane Austen are brilliant summarizers. Not I. Modern readers also have a low tolerance for it, unless it comes from a brilliant writer like Ian McEwan. Read On Chesil Beach and see how he sums up the zeitgeist of the early sixties, its sexual mores and gender relations, in perfectly-honed paragraphs of interpretation, opinion, and meditation.

My dad’s revising his novel and just by listening to Stephen King’s advice in On Writing about adverbs, he’s cut over 50 pages – and he’s not even through. (Like father, like daughter, we’ll say – he started with over 1,000 pages, too!)

Today's Writing Goal: Edit 10 more hard-copy pages of the novel with another 1300 words -- or more -- hitting the floor!

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: The Secret Story

Imagine you are someone else. Change your age – what age do you want to be? Change your height – how tall or short do you want to be? Change where you live — where do you want to live? Do you want to be a boy or a girl? Do you want to have a special talent?

Now pretend you are this new person. Write the secret story that this person would never tell. This is a story of something important that has happened to this person and there is a good reason he or she does not want to tell it. Did you do something bad or good and don’t want anybody to know? Do you live somewhere special or awful and want to keep it secret? Do you know something that nobody else know?

Secondary and Adult: Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

Think of people, things, or experiences in your past that have marked you, but you don’t often talk about it with many people or even anyone at all. It could be

-- A fight you had with someone
-- A frightening experience you had
-- A loss you suffered
-- A secret you keep

Now write that story for your eyes only. Tell whatever details you are able to tell.

Put the story away for a few days.

Return to it and answer this question: how does this private story of your life affect your feelings, thoughts, attitude, and actions today?

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.