Articles About Authors with Day Jobs:
Lapham's Quarterly - Dayjobs
Huffington Post - 11 Authors Who Kept Their Dayjobs
Writer's Digest - Before They Were Famous
Mental Floss - Early Jobs of 24 Famous Writers
Buzzfeed - Famous Authors and Their Dayjobs
Did You Click Buzzfeed - That Was a Test
Stop Reading Buzzfeed Articles - Go Write
No Seriously - Go Write
So this was my first week back at work. About two minutes after I stepped into the building, I started a conversation with a co-worker and mentioned my writing room.
"Oh, are you still writing that series?" she asked.
"Yes?" I said.
Then she gave the look. If you're a writer with a day job, you know what look I'm talking about. It's the look that reminds you how your dreams are silly little things.
It's difficult to be in an environment where no one knows how serious you're taking this, how hard you work to keep both the day job and the night job going, or who you really are and where you're going.
I once said to a friend that there is a fine line between the deluded and the successful when it comes to art.
So it's important to remember, fellow dayjobbers, that our coworkers do not define us. Our daily chores do not make us failures. And if we want it bad enough, we need to remember that there are a hundred thousand people who did it before us. If we want this for ourselves, then we need to stick to it and stand on our own and make it a priority in our lives.
So here, I'm making rules for us:
1. If you have time to write, then write. One author shared his story of writing seven hours straight on the days he had off. You don't get a day off if this is what you want.
2. Don't worry about how others define you. Remember, everyone has a job and no one's life is completely encompassed in their job.
3. Don't feel guilty for taking time to make your writing a priority. You cannot always live for other people.
4. No one has a for-sure success in the future. Everyone, even J.K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood, has at some point felt like a loser and wondered if it was worth it. So make it worth it (and by the way, Rowling was on welfare/worked as a teacher before that, and Atwood was a coffee shop barista).
5. Set deadlines for yourself and do not allow yourself to waver or come up short. Give it your best shot so you won't regret anything.
6. Ask those around you in your personal life to support you. If they love you, they will support you.
7. Make friends in your writing community, even if it's just online. In 2014, I don't think it's "just online," I think it's a huge resource.
8. Give yourself a writing space or a place to go write. Turn off the internet. Focus. If you can't write, then read. Blog. Network. But for God's sake, do not Buzzfeed.
9. Believe in yourself. Advocate for yourself. Love yourself.
10. Finally, submit. Nothing will come of you just sitting there type type typin'. Even if you get a rejection, you're having a conversation with the external writing world.
Have a great year, everyone. And if you need a day job writer friend, you know where to find me.
10 Things I Learned from Applying for an MFA in Creative Writing (or, now that I'm finally into an MFA program, what I wished I knew a year ago) (OR how you can learn from my stupidity)
So this story has a happy ending. I got into the school of my dreams, and I have purchased my plane ticket to whisk off to Maine this July so I can learn how to write about robots and dragons. Just keep that in mind. After three times of trying, I finally got to go to college.
A lot of people have stories that are similar, and other people, like my friend's girlfriend, only tried for one school once and landed a funded position. So sweet for her, and sucky for the rest of us.
My own personal story started in 2008, when I decided I was going to try for an MFA in the first place. In late 2010, I applied for real. I applied to Brown (ha, no), Cornell (wait, what?), Michigan (yeah right), and IWW (death knells). As you can possibly imagine, I was not old enough, experienced enough, good enough, nor ready enough to go to any of these programs. I turned in a personal statement talking about how the MFA was a glass box upon a shelf full of my dreams and aspirations, and I was scared to take it down off the shelf and get my fingerprints on it or some other random nonsense like that. I also spelled Sherman Alexie's name wrong.
The second year, I got into a program. But there was no funding, and instead there was a fat benign tumor in my guts, which meant I needed to put the MFA (and a lot of my writing projects) on the back-burner for one more year so I could make sure I was well enough to move away and do my thing.
This brings us to the third year.
And even while I count the days until that beautiful plane with the one connecting flight in O'Hare takes me to Stonecoast, I sit with six rejections and two waitlists in my pocket to the other eight schools I applied to. I just lucked out that the one school I wanted was the one school who wanted me.
In short terms: it's hard out there for a pimp.
I freaked myself out so hard, guys. An entire year of my life was dedicated to this freakish awful circus called MFA Applications. And I, too, scoured the internet to figure out what the hell I should be doing.
Now that I am through the tunnel of doom and on the other side, I unfortunately still don't know everything. I know a lot of people got way more acceptances than I did. I know a lot of people know how to spell Sherman Alexie's name right the first time. But I also know I survived, and I'm wiser for it.
Here's the Top 10 Things I Wish I'd Known.
10: MFA DRAFT
MFA applications can be hard and tedious. It'd be nice to have someone there to just give you a pat on the back and be like, "It's okay! I'm going through hell, too! THE ODDS ARE NEVER IN ANYONE'S FAVOR! THE CAKE IS A LIE!" So for this reason, I wish I'd known about MFA Draft long before I did. I actually found the Draft after all of my applications were turned in, and I was waiting to hear back. I wanted to know when people were being contacted, and that meant finding places like gradcafe and MFA Draft. Unfortunately, Draft would have come in handy about twelve months earlier, since people share tips and swap drafts of their writing samples and keep each other sane through GRE testing. If you're applying for 2015, look up MFA Draft 15. Do it now. Introduce yourself. And get started.
9. JUNE WASN'T EARLY ENOUGH.
So I started in June. I turned down my Round 2 MFA Application Anti-Acceptance Due to Tumor in April, and then I started MFA searching in June. I thought I was on top of it all. I thought I was ridin' the wave of productivity and haha to those unfortunates who wouldn't start until October! I sat my rump down at a Dunkin Donuts and I read the Poets&Writers MFA Edition and I highlighted the crap outta that sucker. I was gonna do it! I was gonna get ready for the GRE and Mama, I was gonna be a star!
I should have started in March. There's so much to do, especially on the writing sample and even just really researching what schools would be a good fit for you, that you cannot wait until June. You just can't.
8. IOWA MAY BE FANCY, BUT IT MIGHT NOT BE A FIT.
I applied to nine schools. I write "popular fiction" or "genre fiction" or "science fiction" or "speculative fiction" or "hack-style" or whatever you want to call it. So I knew that not every MFA program was going to be for me. But oh, I still underestimated just how gloriously my paper airplane of a writing sample would crumple and fall into a fiery ball of sad. My writing sample included a story about a man who moves backwards in time instead of forwards, a granddaughter recounting her grandmother's last day on Earth before the Noah's Ark Rocketship took off, and of course an excerpt of my science fiction novel. Except for Brown, where I needed a few more pages and I included my YA Steampunk Trilogy (excerpt, of course). I am brilliant. So very brilliant.
The thing is, I took a chance. I wanted a school to pick me for who I was, not for who they thought I was. And this is who I am, guys. But instead of wasting my time and money and paper and postage on schools like NCSU and Brown, I should have probably focused more on smaller schools with good funding who would take on a crackerjack like me.
Stonecoast, thank God, was looking for crackerjacks. They collect crackerjacks. And now I get to crackerjack for two years with people who can actually help me.
And imagine if you got into one of those programs where you couldn't actually be yourself. I was (surprisingly) waitlisted at a school that was research heavy. I hate research. Why the hell would I apply to someplace that would expect me to research things?! I don't know, but I did.
I also looked at Poets & Writers for the answers. Obviously if a school is ranked 60 out of 150, it's easier to get into than IWW or Brown, right?
Ha, by like four percent, maybe! You're still sitting at 4 out of 900 applicants! Good luck to you, ma'am!
This is in no way saying that P&W isn't legit; it totally is and you need to read it and ear-mark it and kiss it before bed. But you also need to do some of your own research on the programs. You need to see if low-res is going to work out for you a little better than full-res, or maybe Amherst would be your worst nightmare instead of your dream come true, because you have nothing in common with the faculty. Or maybe there is a really sweet program in Kalamazoo (there isn't any program in Kalamazoo, please don't get your hopes up) that gives full funding but it's up-and-coming, and no one knows about it yet.
That happened to me with Wichita.
Cut to: 2008. Interior. Book Fair at AWP. I see Wichita's table. It's small. I go over there. They are really nice and sweet and they tell me all about new stuff that is happening. I decide Wichita is not for me.
Cut to: 2014. I'm near the end of my application process, and I decide in a panic to apply to Wichita. It's been a few years. They've grown. Seth Abramson mentioned them and now everyone wants WSU.
Guess who didn't get in.
Find the place that fits you, not the place you need to fit.
I wasted so much time and money. And in the end, Stonecoast didn't even need my damn GRE.
7. F THE GRE.
So yes, let me begin this by saying that you absolutely should study for that test and yes, it does mean a lot when coming down to the nitty-gritty of funding and TA positions. And yes, there are specific programs that need a certain GRE score in order to be admitted. So in no way am I saying that the GRE is not important.
But it's not important as it will seem.
I feel like a lot of us glomp onto the GRE because it's the only assessment-based score we get during our progress in this dark hole of applying. But really, seriously, if you figure out what programs you really want to apply to, and none of them want the GRE, then you may not want to take the GRE. Of course, other people will disagree with me, saying that you may find a program you like down the road and you're going to need that score. It's a gamble, but either way, GRE or no GRE, don't use your entire summer studying for it instead of workshopping your writing sample.
I worked so hard on that GRE, and I got a pretty good score. By pretty good, it was high enough to get into any school I wanted ... if this was the ACT and I was going for undergrad. But I wasn't, and the GRE really meant nothing because they didn't like my writing sample. So hey, kids! Know your vocabulary, but go to the writing sample. Use your summer for the writing sample.
Also, know which programs you want to send your GRE to, before you leave for the testing. They give you four free schools, and use that. It's an extra hundred dollars.
6. IT IS SERIOUSLY ALL ABOUT THE WRITING SAMPLE. NO. SERIOUSLY.
Everyone says this and no one believes it. Have a strong SOP, have strong recs, but seriously, it comes down to the sample. You double-check that puppy five times before you send it out, for any typos whatsoever. Because guess who had typos even after checking it and rechecking it and having two other people recheck it? Two thumbs to this gal.
Don't do novel excerpts. Don't show off something that you just wrote. And don't ever turn anything that wasn't workshopped. Workshop it. Send it out. Tear it apart, or the applicant committee will.
5. PUT YOUR HEART INTO IT, AND THEN FORGET ABOUT IT.
I worked nonstop from June to the end of January on my MFA applications. It was a near-to year of my life. I've had relationships shorter than the application process for this graduate degree. I was meticulous, I was ruthless, I was egocentric, and I missed out on a lot of films during Oscar season.
But then there's this weird drop-off come February, when there is nothing to do and no one is telling you how you did.
Around mid-March, I should have been having the time of my life, since my bridesmaids and I went on vacation to check out my wedding venue and I had a week off from school. However, I was fervently watching MFA Draft 14 to see if I had gotten into Boulder or Wichita. I checked the mail every day, I pestered my parents to see maybe my mail had magically ended up in their mailbox ten miles away.
You just have to forget about it. From January 3 to April 15, you will know nothing, Jon Snow. You have to carry on with your life. Your beautiful, fulfilling, day-job life.
4. DON'T USE THE MFA AS AN ESCAPE HATCH.
Ah. Yes. That day job.
I actually got into an argument on MFA Draft about how some people are using the MFA to run away from a life they don't want. I think that every writer has a small little part of their brain that says, "Man, if I could just write all day for a living and do nothing else, then I would have it made." Well, I know writers who write for a living, all day, and it's not as easy as you'd think. Just assume that anything you do, anywhere you go, anyone you love will have their setbacks. That weird, tired, frustration that comes with being alive and breathing on Earth does not go away just because you have moved away, changed jobs, gotten married, or even entered an MFA program.
I said that in fact I'd known people who were using the MFA application as a possible "escape hatch" from their crappy lives and their crappy situations. Having someone pay you a stipend to sit in a dorm and type, type, type? Greatest thing ever, right?
No. And I was a little vindicated when a few days later, another Drafter posted that she was frustrated and sad because not getting into a program this year meant having to go back to her crappy job where no one treated her with any respect. Someone commented with words of wisdom, asking, "Will you then be okay working that crappy job and getting disrespected while you're in graduate school?" Because guess what, kiddos, you're still going to have to work to put yourself through school (and yes, that includes full funding).
"But Dawson!" you exclaim. "I got into Brown and I have enough savings!"
Sweet. But then you run into other problems. Like absolutely no job prospects when you graduate (helloooo adjuncts!). Or you're living in Providence, which is a gigantic college town with swindly landlords who will shut your heat off in the middle of the night. Everything looks shiny and beautiful, until you get there and start to see the grease marks right up close.
And I was in a writing cohort in my undergrad. I will be the first to tell you that getting a writing degree is not easy. Is it fun? If you love it, and I loved it, it will all be totally worth it. But I still had to contend with deadlines, a ridiculous amount of writing, and everything I wrote got torn apart to shreds. I had to deal with everyone else and the competition of having four people going for one final little slot of production at the end of the four years, and everyone was good. And even when people weren't good, you wondered why they got praise that day and you didn't. I had a professor who absolutely hated my writing style, and I thought that meant that I sucked forever.
It's not easy. Writing is never easy. But we do it because we love it.
This also plays into this Michael Chabon idea that if you go into an MFA program, you will immediately become someone. You won't. You'll probably end up flitting around from adjunct job to adjunct job, trying to make ends meet.
In summation: You go into an MFA program to get better at writing. You don't go into an MFA program to hide from the world or jump-start your life out of your parents' basement. Otherwise, you're going to be even more frustrated and depressed than you were when you were applying in the first place.
3: SCHOLARSHIPS! FAFSA! MONEY! YAY!
Yes, you need to do the FAFSA. Yes, there are scholarships outside of your department. You need to scour the college's website very early on, so you know exactly when scholarships are due and which ones you can apply for. Do your FAFSA as soon as you get your tax information from your jobs. Just do things early. There aren't a lot of federal grants and there's barely any scholarships out there that don't come from your schools, but you need to keep things in mind for GA's, TA's, and scholarships:
There is the department.
And then there is the graduate school as a general whole.
Two chances. Two sets of opportunities. Don't forget that second one.
Oh, and even if you are paying completely out of pocket, you should do the FAFSA. Some schools consider it a requirement.
Also. Another big thing to remember about money. Applications cost. A LOT.
2: KNOW YOUR FACULTY. KNOW YOUR RECOMMENDERS.
Now some people go overboard and read every single faculty's book. That's ridiculous. Don't do that. But you do need to see who you're going to be working with. I've worked with teachers and professors before who just do not see eye-to-eye with what I want to do with my writing. They write something completely different than what I'm interested in writing, and neither of us can find any common ground. That said, I actually met one of the greatest influences in my writing life because I switched one Creative Writing class time slot when I was a sophomore in college.
And now that person is one of my recommenders. Oh look! A transition!
It's important to trust your recs. It is important to know these people believe in you and are going to fight for you. One of my recommenders the first time around was a very fancy person, but they wrote the absolute worst recommendation I've ever seen (because yes, they gave me a copy). They meant no malice by it; they were just an awful letter writer. It was literally a paragraph, and not a big fat paragraph. It was like a tiny little "I endorse this message" disclaimer more than it was a meaningful explanation of their adoration for my work. Or you know ... whatever.
You also need to treat your recommenders like real people, because they are real people. On the flip side of life, I work as a recommender for other people. I absolutely hate it when people hand me a form or an address or information and they're like, "Yeah it's due tomorrow." I tell people I want at least two weeks' notice, and I think that's being pretty nice to them. On the other hand, I also get pissed when people hand me information and they're like, "Oh yeah, and it's due in I don't know ... April?" And it's October. I will forget. Don't think just because you dropped it off and touched base (in a very literal way ... like reaching out and touching a base and then running away with immunity to taggers), that I am even going to remotely remember that you need a recommendation come April. I've had relationships shorter than the time you are asking me to remember something. So no, that don't cut it.
Also, get them a present. They'll really appreciate it, and then they'll do more recs for you.
Also, ask for more than what you need. I've heard so many horror stories about people who didn't get into a school because some a-wad didn't turn in their rec letter. How dumb is that? You do everything right. You pay money. And you don't get in because your recommender didn't turn a piece of paper in?!
But it happens.
So if you need three, get four. Or five. I had five people on deck for three slots, and all of my recs got turned in on time.
Also, you need to send them SASE's for their rec letters and you need to write out all of the information for them. It needs to be organized and categorized so they know exactly what is going on with life. If not, they'll shut down or just get really angry that you didn't make this easy. And do you want an angry person writing your rec letter?
No. The answer is no.
Last thing: if you can, meet the faculty. One of my biggest regrets was not being able to make it to AWP this year. I've got every year since 2008 when I discovered AWP existed as a wee sophomore in college. You need to go to those booths, make actual connections with people, and really honestly have that human experience with other humans. Talk to students, get to know the school. Once at AWP, I went up to the booth of one of my top picks, and this little girl with a fancy t-shirt informed me and a group of kids, "Oh. If you write genre, don't even think about applying here. Or at least try to mask it in your writing sample."
That was a big fat nope from me. And I saved 70 bucks on my application, and the faculty saved their eyesight not having to read it.
Also, take advantage of AWP. I actually had someone come up from NEOMFA and woo me to their program and took my name and got really excited about me going there. NEOMFA wasn't for me, because at the time, I did not have a driver's license. But it was really sweet to be wooed. Wouldn't all of us love to be wooed during this process?
1. LOVE YOURSELF, NO MATTER WHAT.
Your heart is going to be broken, guys. All of your hearts. You will not get into every program you want to get into, and even if you're one of those lucky Top Ten who gets in everywhere and then has to choose between Michigan and Brown, you're going to be sad eventually because you'll go there and think to yourself, "Maybe I'm not good enough."
Well, you are good enough. We all are. Because we are wanting to dedicate two years of our lives to getting better at something. How many people in the world do that? Who gets up in the morning and thinks, "I want to go and get better at this thing that is not going to make me any money and will probably cause me to spend a lot of time by myself, miserable and self-loathing." Furthermore, how many people say, "There is this thing I love to do, but I am humble enough to know that I could get better?" If you think a lot of people say these things, then I commend you, because you have kept good company.
But I've met a lot of people who just sort of slug through life, or they have such an ego, they never try to get better. So many people out there would rather say, "Oh, well, I'm sure it'll happen on its own." or "I always wanted to do this thing, but you know, stuff." People suck because they procrastinate. People always talk about what they could have been or what they're going to be, but they never do anything to better their situation.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars.
So the fact that you are even reading this blog, looking at schools, applying to programs, and going off into the great perhaps ... all of that tells me that you are worth something, and you want your writing to be worth something.
Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to be open to growth and criticism. But never allow anyone to make you feel like you're a nothing. And if you don't get into a program, it does not mean that you suck. It means that your writing sample sucked. Or maybe your writing sample just didn't fit whatever that school wanted. Or maybe you just aren't ready for the great perhaps, but perhaps next year you will be.
The only thing you can do is keep loving yourself, keep writing, and keep fighting.
Good luck. And God Bless.
Welcome to another week of the world not knowing the difference between winter and summer! Last week, there was a glitch in posting, so expect another post to make up for last week's lack of a post.
But for today, I thought the next most important topic would be the thing that everyone struggles with. It’s worse than writer’s block. It’s scarier than your final chapter. It’s even more frustrating than the query letter. Even authors who somehow manage to pull this thing off barely escape with their lives. It is … exposition.
So you have the idea for your book. You know what makes the legs of the world’s table. Regardless if it’s a realistic fiction piece about a middle-aged woman who has just filed for a divorce and enjoys planting her garden, or if it’s a sci-fi adventure about space cowboys trying to save the final hope of humanity, there is always the “stasis” that we begin with. There is an already established world when we open the first page and begin to write.
Problem is, the reader has no clue what this already established world is.
So here are four key rules to have a successful reveal of exposition:
1. Just the Facts, Ma’am
Have you ever had that conversation with a friend where you just wish they’d get to the point? They’re going into more detail than need be, and you’re not sure why they’re talking. Look at these two different dialogues:
- “So we went over the Jane’s place, and she’s got like this new parakeet that just keeps honking or … tweeting … whatever a bird does. And she’s like, ‘Go ahead, sit down I just gotta get the dog in the basement.’ So we sat down and she had Nickelodeon on, which I was a little confused about but whatever. But yeah, Sally’s doing good. She seems better. All things considered, I’d be a real wreck after last month, but she’s tough. Always has been. But so like we got into Jane’s car and Sally was talking about it. And I was surprised she was talking about it. She doesn’t really talk about stuff like that. And Jane starts talking about Dan, and I’m like … yeah is Dan still around? I know, Dan. Dan’s still around. You know, John doesn’t like Dan very much. I know, John doesn’t like anyone. But he has reason not to like Dan. But so anyway … no, Dan wasn’t there. I didn’t mention that. Dan didn’t come with us cause that’d be awkward. I think Dan knew that Tom knew. Maybe John told him. But anyway, so we pull up to the Golden Corral. And we go in and pay and stuff. And Sally and I are just hanging out and I finally ask her like, ‘You seem to be doing better. Are you doing better?’ And she goes, ‘Yeah. Well. I don’t know.’ Which worried me again … and all of a sudden, Tom comes in. And he’s furious. Like, I’ve never seen Tom like that. It was terrifying. And Tom’s like, ‘Jane!’ In front of everyone. And he goes up to Jane and Jane’s got this attitude like, ‘Why are you late?’ And Tom’s like, ‘Outside. We’re talking outside right now.’ And Jane’s like, ‘No.’ And Tom’s like, … well they go back and forth, and then Tom says, ‘Dan just told me what you did.’ And Jane doesn’t say a word. She just leaves. And Tom …”
- “So we went out to the Golden Corral afterward and Tom found out Jane had been cheating on him.”
The second one is much clearer. We know that they went out to eat. We know that Tom found out Jane had been cheating on him. We don’t care about Sally. Who is Sally? Not important to our plot, that’s who. We have no idea what we’re supposed to be paying attention to, so we get all tangled up in our following the story. Look at Dickens for a good example of how exposition can be simple.
- Not Dickens: “Scrooge was an old man who lived in London. It was the 19th Century, and he was somewhat miserly. And by somewhat, I mean a lot. He was all crouched over and had money bags on him at all times. His closest employer was Bob Crachit, but even Bob didn’t like him very much. Scrooge hated Christmas, too. Just plain hated it. Every year when his nephew Fred invited him over to dinner, he told him, ‘Bah humbug!’ Scrooge used to have a friend, and his name was Jacob Marley. However, Jacob Marley had died. It had been a stormy evening, and Scrooge didn’t seem to really care that Marley was dead. He thought about Marley from time to time, how they went on that trip to the country when they were boys and he was still with Isabella. That had been a good summer. They’d had cucumber sandwiches, the three of them, and Scrooge actually smiled back then. But Marley and him had grown into misers and bankers, both terrible things. And so Marley had finally kicked the bucket, and he wasn’t coming back. Yes, it was Christmas and Marley wasn’t there.”
- Dickens: “Marley was dead, to begin with.”
See the difference? Do we need to know that he loved Isabella? Do we need to know about Freddy and Bob yet? Do we need to know that he’s a banker and a miser and no one really likes him? We will know all of this through the development of the characters and plot once the story gets rolling. All we need to know to start off is that Marley is dead.
Try this with your own manuscript. If you only had three sentences to set up the world with, what three sentences would it be?
2. In and Out
Which leads us to our second point. Think of the first day of school. The teacher has to tell you her name, what the class is, go over the syllabus, get yourself acquainted with the expectations, etc. But all of this is usually done quickly because we need to actually start the class.
When a reader begins your book, you have them for about the first two pages before they’ve made a decision about your work. That’s frustrating, but it’s the truth. How many times have you picked up a book and then put it back down? Books are laborious tasks and not always the cheapest things to invest in. So why would you spend a few days reading a book that doesn’t pull you in from the first chapter? It doesn’t matter how wonderful that scene on page 72 is; we aren’t going to get to page 72 if page 1 isn’t stupendous. Believe me, I have this problem myself. In the book I’m preparing right now, my favorite scene is on page 200. The first forty pages (usually what you send in a query) are not as great as I wish they were. So before I go congratulating myself on page 200, I need to go back and pave the way to that scene.
Thus, with the first pages being crucial, the exposition has to be in and out. Three sentences. One paragraph. Not thirty pages of setting everything up without the plot moving.
Some authors, such as George Orwell, figured out a way around this. Orwell’s whole entire first two chapters of 1984 is setting up his world. However, he has his main character moving and being active while he shows off the world to us. It isn’t just a description, it’s exploration.
3. Let the Reader Discover
There is a universal truth about people; they like to be treated with respect. They also like to discover things for themselves. How many times have you felt like someone is spoon-feeding you information? Probably none of those times was during a read of a very good book. Great authors know that they need to “show, not tell.” Don’t start your book off explaining the world in such great detail that the reader is an expert on the subject. We don’t need a textbook. We need to be immersed into the main character’s head. We need to see it through their eyes and feel smart when we find something out about the world on our own. This makes it personal. This makes us connect.
Two wonderful examples of this is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Stephen King’s The Green Mile. Lee does what Mark Twain does in a lot of his novels; use a child as a protagonist in order to discuss difficult adult topics through a child’s innocent eyes. Because Scout doesn’t understand her world completely, we don’t either. But we discover it along with Scout, thus making Scout our best friend instead of some sort of informer or forced character that we have no connection to. Stephen King does it a little different in The Green Mile; there were specific facts that he needed to share with us about Louisiana in the 1930′s, about electric chairs, about death row, etc. However, when he has to tell us the exposition of how John Coffey ended up in prison, he gives Paul Edgecombe a report to read, and Paul has a viceral reaction to the report. It pushes the story forward, both through plot and character. And aside from the exposition, we don’t know everything about the world. We don’t know how Paul is still alive eighty years later. We don’t know why John Coffey is so odd. There are questions unanswered because Paul hasn’t got all the answers.
4. Clarity and Focus
This pertains to something touched in the first point. Think back to Sally. Why did we need to know about Sally in order to get Jane and Tom’s story out? We didn’t. This is a pitfall that happens to the best of writers when they’re world creating, especially in fantasy and sci-fi. We get so excited about creating a world that we have notes upon notes about what each character’s favorite food is, why they wear what they wear, what the correct protocol for exiting a room is on the planet of Zuba … none of this really matters if your thesis to your story has absolutely nothing to do with exiting a room. When giving us the exposition, keep it simple. And don’t only keep it simple, but have it guide us in the right direction.
Look at Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He begins his story by establishing that Huck is best friends with Tom, Huck is uncivilized, and a widow has taken Huck in and is attempting to civilize him. Why is it important that this is the exposition we get? Because the entirety of the story is about Huck teetering between the “uncivilized” and “civilized” way of doing things. There is the constant anxiety of doing right and going to Heaven and doing wrong and going to Hell. At the end, on the very last page, Twain’s still very focused on this thesis when he book-ends the story by having Huck run away and go west.
Exposition needs to be short, to the point, and involved with the plot and the reader’s discovery. It’s hard starting the engines to a story, but if done well, the rest of the book will stand on very strong legs.
There is a lot that happens when writing a book. You’ll read books that tell you the same advice, such as “don’t use had beens or have beens,” and “make sure your character changes in some way.” But I can’t count how many times I’ve finished a manuscript and couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong with what I’d just done. Here are three things you may not have thought of, but need to keep in mind.
Do the characters sound the same?
Sometimes our voices come across beautifully in our prose. However, sometimes that prose is not written from our own voice but our character’s. Perhaps your book is from different perspectives of different characters. And regardless what your perspective may be, I can assume you will have different voices in your dialogue. It isn’t enough to give them different accents, nor is it enough to give them a saying, like “That’s all aces!” You have to make them separate people with separate language.
Metaphors and Similes of Doom
Do you really actually need that metaphor that you just used? Did it work like Ray Bradbury or did it just come off like a self-congratulatory undergrad? I know that we as writers have been conditioned to use imagery and figurative language whenever our brain can muster it up, but do you really need to say that she’s dressed like someone who is eloping in the thirties? Can’t you just say she’s wearing an old fashioned but pretty coat? What does that metaphor do to further your thesis along? I know you’re proud of it, but why must we read it? Make sure that everything you say on the page is relevant.
The Implications of the World
I went back and looked at an old sci-fi I wrote when I was nine. Let me preface this by saying I was nine. But the “bad guy” in the book had missed out on the mayorship of a town, and the book opens with a little boy and girl running down the street to the little boy’s father’s medical practice. Suddenly the little boy stops and says they shouldn’t go in; the bad guy’s inside talking to his father. In the middle of reading this, I realized this sounded a lot like a mob boss collecting money or intimidating in some way. I had never thought of that connection before, and I’d missed out on some really cool storytelling because of it. But it goes further than developing your main story. You have to think with your peripherals. For example, how does the action of our hero affect a man two blocks away? If Iron Man blows a building apart trying to fight the aliens, how does that affect the people inside? If a woman throws a coffee cup at her boyfriend’s head in a diner, how does that affect the waitress serving them? This makes your world a much more realized tale, and it will feel a lot richer to the audience.
What other small tidbits have you found creep up in revisions?
I feel like an old person today.
Yesterday I got up at nine o' clock to sign my new lease and start moving my crap into my new apartment. I'm in tech for the rest of the two weeks left on my old lease, so the good bulk of things had to move yesterday. As in, had to.
I slipped on ice and ripped the crap out of my upper thigh muscle. But I had to keep going.
Then I got an allergic reaction when I touched the base for the bed. It was metal. I have a stupid condition that makes me break out in hives whenever I touch metal. It makes life interesting. And makes my skin feel like I want to rip it off.
Then I slipped on the stairs. Then my dad (who was helping me) started yelling. Then we realized we still had nine more trips to make.
But we had to keep going.
And today when I went into work, I had to keep walking. I had to keep using those sore muscles.
And now I sit in my semi-empty, box-riddled apartment, trying to muster the energy to write.
I know I should. I made it through the move. I've thought about the book enough. Alex yells at me nearly every fifteen minutes from cyberspace. And yet it is 9:47 at night, and I've been procrastinating since I arrived home at 6:30.
I share this story with you, because as you may have figured, I'm pushing myself to write this blog. It's not my book, but it's something. It's a little time out of my day that I sit down and type type type, even if it isn't good. Ray Bradbury taught me that, although I never met him. Find a word, then decide what word goes with that word, and then go for it.
Granted, not every one of those words that cross your mind will be brilliant, but you must write.
As I told someone today, "If you put it off until tomorrow, it'll never get done."
Sometimes there isn't a tomorrow. Sometimes you just have a stack of heavy boxes and a fucked up leg, and you have to keep going.
I’m going to get to my point, I promise. But first, I must regale you with a story. Once upon a time, I moved to Chicago.
It was a glorious time, made of L trains and freezing winters and odd smells emoting from the alleyways. But then I moved away, and was a Chicagoan no more.
Recently, I was able to return to Chicago and walk amongst the living as the one thing Chicagoans hate more than ketchup on hot dogs: a tourist.
Now most of us in the Midwest have made the sojourn to the lovely little Windy City to taste the deep dish and partake in the Navy Pier gift shop. But not all of us have lived there. Coming from my personal experience of being an outsider, then being a resident, then once again being an outsider, I can tell you there is a definite difference between visiting the city and living in the city.
My first memory of Chicago came in the third grade, when my parents took us on a whirlwind vacation. I remember driving down Ohio Street in our rental van, looking up through the tip of the window and realizing that the Woodmen Tower in Omaha was very small compared to the rest of the world. I remember the street artists with the trash can drums blazing my ears as we turned the corner into the parking garage for DisneyQuest.
I remember the Field Museum and taking the trolley to the Museum of Science and Industry. I remember all of the cool things inside those museums. I remember parking our car near Grant Park and me looking up to the skyline and thinking, “K.A. Applegate lives there. Important people live there.” But most of all, I remember Navy Pier with all of its shops and yummy restaurants and brilliant view of the city.
Ten years later, I lived there.
My memories of Chicago as a Chicagoan do not match up with my tourist recollections. I went to the Field Museum on a whopping two occasions. Navy Pier, which was always a staple of any family vacation to the Second City, was a bane of existence for most people actually living in the Second City. It was out of the way, it was crowded with slow walking people, and all of the restaurants (even the McDonald’s) was overpriced. The only reason why any of us would ever go to Navy Pier was to partake in the amazing IMAX movie theater for such premieres as The Watchmen, 300, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
No, the infamous Bean and Millennium Park barely came into play. And there’s a reason for this disconnect between visiting and living.
Chicago is really divided into four portions: North Side, West Side, South Side, and in the middle of it all the Loop. People visiting never usually go past the Loop. And if they go past the Loop, it’s because they know someone who lives on the North Side and can take them to that swank concert in that swank coffee shop near Southport.
But usually tourists’ view of Chicago is limited by the park downtown, the big fancy buildings, and the pretty Christmas lights on Michigan Avenue and State.
But my memories are speckled with another city.
For me as a resident, Chicago was not big buildings. It was sitting in a living room and playing Cranium with some lifelong friends I’d only just met. It was being late to class because I’d overslept. It was losing forty pounds at the gym over the course of a season. It was my first heartbreak with a guy I shouldn’t have been dating. It was eating Domino’s Pizza and watching The Office and Parks and Rec with the neighbor upstairs who picked me up and put me back together every time I fell. It was paying back a ticket to a comedy show with providing meals at the crappy McD’s down the street. It was discovering graphic novels, attending my first play reading, freaking out when my grandmother had to go into heart surgery, sitting in the park with my high school best friend and talking about him wanting to go to medical school. It was Starbucks cookies I shouldn’t have eaten, and that Greek restaurant I should have gotten around to trying. It was working on the South Side every Wednesday and being there one Halloween and watching the adorable costumes parade by.
But most of all, it was my best friend. Someone who spent hours talking about book plots and dissecting Harry Potter, and the closest thing I ever had to a sister.
When I returned to Chicago last summer for a quick visit, a lot of those people were still there. I stayed with my lifelong friends and we had a rousing time at Giordano’s eating unhealthy deep dish. And it was great. But when I stepped away from them on the last day and took my bags down to Union Station, I stopped in Millennium Park and I was no different than the people with cameras snapping silly photos of themselves in the Bean. I looked up to the skyline and I couldn’t imagine that three years ago, this was my home.
My apartment with the movie posters and the dirty kitchen was gone. Most of my friends had moved away to bigger and better things. My neighbor lived in Milwaukee. The boy who had broken my heart had disappeared to God knows where. My high school best friend was nothing more than a forgotten phone number. And the closest thing I had to a sister was hundreds of miles away from this place.
It was back to being a postcard.
So why do I tell you about where I lived? Because I read an amazing article today that talked about the difference between good world creation and awful world creation. When you create a world, you cannot be a tourist. I assure you, there was not a day I lived in Chicago and thought about the Chicago Fire or the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. You’ll hear that crap on the tours, but when you step off the double-decker bus and put your fancy camera down, you’ll start to see ordinary life.
Teenagers with backpacks on the platform waiting to get to school. Women trying not to cry on their way to work because some stupid jerk just shattered their world. Little girls and boys with nannies or their parents rushing to get to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Stuffy college kids walking around in scarves and ironic glasses with their frappes talking about the latest philosophy. Businessmen who walk too fast. Friends going out for a pizza run.
And I assure you, not a one of them is reflecting on the fact that they live in Chicago, which is the third largest city in the United States and was founded by fur traders. Not a one of them thinks it’s weird to get on an L train and go to work. They do not sit there and narrate to themselves, “We are on the Elevated Train and how odd we do not take cars! But back in the 1900′s, someone had this brilliant idea to put an electrical system on a —” no. They take the L. There’s construction on the rails. They’re already running behind, and now they’re going to miss their meeting. I assure you, all they’re thinking about is how much this sucks.
So when you step into your created world, do not have the characters think about the Loop. Do not have them go to the fancy hubs and talk about how fancy they all are. They are not original in their minds. They are just people in a place that are doing life-y things.
Let’s take an example.
A group of humans escape earth right before an asteroid hits. They get on a clunker of a space ship and zoom off to find another world. Years pass, and another world is not found. Three generations in, these people are still living on this clunker and that’s just the world.
A girl around the age of twelve is your protagonist. She has never known Earth, and neither has her grandmother. She lives on the clunker.
Let’s look at two examples of how to go about introducing the world.
Willow looked out of the Persephone’s small, rusted window to space. It had been one hundred and fifty years since Earth, and still nothing had come but more space. Sometimes a planet here and there, but nothing more than that. She sighed and pushed the buttons on the wall’s Inner-Communication panel, which would connect her to the kitchen below.
On the Persephone, the kitchen was conducted by Chef Maggie, who tried her hardest to fulfill the orders of all twenty-thousand on board. Of course she wasn’t by herself in this endeavor, but still Willow guessed it was difficult to feed twenty-thousand people a day, even with a kitchen staff and a new IronChef-3000, which was the newest contraption Maggie could get before the Persephone left the planet.
Willow put her order in and went to getting dressed in her military-issued tunic. It looked like everyone else’s tunic. But the President said it would make things simpler for them, and what else could they really ask for? It had been over a century.
Now looking at this example, we have a lot of information about the world, but what do we know about Willow? Is this what a twelve-year-old would think getting out of bed in the morning? We are acting as a tourist on this ship, not actually living there and making it real.
Let’s try again.
Willow did not feel hungry when she woke. The InnerCom kept beeping at her to put in the breakfast order, but she ignored its incessant whining as she stared out the black window stuck in a nervous anxiety. Her brain liked to zoom around in circles when she got stuck. Her mother had instructed her to breathe the last time an attack had come, but this was worse than any attack she’d had before. She didn’t deserve to breathe.
Willow saw Bryan’s face, frozen in time, staring at her with those big eyes and that forlorn look of betrayal. And there was Zacharia and Weston and the rest of the boys, laughing at Bryan and throwing scrap metal at him. She saw it over and over again. There had never been any difference between Bryan and the other boys before yesterday. They dressed in the same tunic, they liked the same music, they sat at the same table in the mess hall. But now, because of Willow and her big mouth, Bryan was different.
“You promised,” he’d said as she helped him to his feet. The boys were gone now, but scrap metal had gouged Bryan’s cheek and he was bleeding. “You promised you wouldn’t say anything!”
Willow took him to the closest infirmary she could find, which was all the way on Deck Two. It was a long walk, made even longer by their silence.
“Enter breakfast choice!” the InnerCom now screeched at her.
But Willow just stuffed her face and ears into her pillow and tried to go back to sleep.
What’s the real difference between these two scenes? In one, we figure out what Willow’s deal is. We meet the characters and get inside the head of a twelve-year-old girl as she would be. Us living in America do not get up every morning and think, “Our descendants moved here from somewhere else. There was a grand revolution! We are under King George no more!” That was 250 years ago. We care more about what we’re going to eat for dinner and whether or not the people we love are doing okay. And we also don’t call things by their full, formal names. We do not say, “Get on your cellular device and telephone him!” We say, “Call him” or “Can I borrow your phone?” or “Where’s your cell?” Because we’re real people.
Don’t just visit your world. Live there. Don’t just give us Millennium Park and the history of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Give us that night where you were heart-broken because of some stupid guy, and your upstairs neighbor invited you over for pizza and introduced you to Leslie Knope.
That’s where the real story lies.
What is this?
Dawson is a writer. This is her blog. In it, you shall read about reading. And writing. And cheeseburgers. Sometimes there are tangents. Huzzah.