Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lessons on Writing I Learned from James Joyce



While the rest of the world may know it's fall because leaves are changing, I know it's fall because I'm teaching Joyce to my AP Literature class (and I have lighted a beloved "leaf" scented candle from Bath & Body Works). Since I'm in the Joyce mood, here are five of my favorite tricks the master stylist used you may want to play with if you're stuck in a rut or want to force more depth into your work.

1. The gnomon (often seen through his use of ellipses). At the start of Dubliners, he introduces the Euclidian term without definition, but it's a term/technique he'll use throughout the rest of that work and others. The gnomon is the shaded piece of the sundial. It's the missing piece that defines everything. The moment one person says "I love you" for the first time, and then ...

Joyce really understood how what is not said may be far more powerful than what is said, and uses ellipses to force the reader to...

2. Recurring motifs. While most writers will riff off a few motifs running throughout a work, Joyce composes symphonies. Each time a motif is brought back, a new layer of depth/complexity is added, and with so many motifs running simultaneously with their own arcs throughout a work (In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man there are probably hundreds from birds, to Priests, to Romantic poets, to the color green, to...) the symphony is constructed and subtle complexity is achieved. 

3. Euphony. The final passage of "The Dead" in Dubliners might be the most beautiful one ever written (if you haven't read it, do yourself a favor and read it!), and so much of that beauty is derived from its long vowel and repeated soft consonants. It's not just that it sounds pretty that matters, though, it's the placement. The story "The Dead" is a condemnation of Ireland's full political paralysis and what better way to leave the reader than to have been lulled to sleep himself. At the end of the second chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the euphony takes on a different purpose. After a first establishing shot of a garden in the chapter, and a number of references to anticipating a falling away of innocence, the end of the chapter happens when protagonist is losing his virginity to a prostitute and the passage becomes engulfed with the soft s's not unlike the hiss of a snake. Brilliant, Joyce, so brilliant to drive home the final blow of a garden of Eden allusion with such temptingly euphonious hissing.

4. Perspective/voice. In the collection of short stories Joyce uses to talk about Dublin's gradual loss of power, he begins in first person and after a selling out scene, he uses third person, removing the voice of the person and putting it in the hands of another. In his loose autobiography, Joyce uses a third-person that grows with the protagonist as though he's suggesting that there is no "all knowing" voice outside of oneself. He ends with diary entries once the character establishes his own "voice."

5. Structure. In Ulysses, Joyce overlays the structure/plot of The Odyssey/Ulysses onto an ordinary man on an ordinary day in Dublin. Brilliant. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man he uses a chiasmus structure (ABCCBA) alluding to Biblical poetry, but also allowing for commentary on growth each time a scene is mirrored and a chance to put silence in the center to suggest that silence is the ultimate mirror. Such a cool perspective on an auto-biography. In Dubliners, he takes unconnected stories of average Dubliners to show the gradual loss of power/hope of the city--talking about political strategy via an ordinary domestic abuse victim (Eveline)--brilliant. Finnegan's Wake, too, in its re-telling of all the other stories in various forms driving home the repeated motif idea of our lives as a series of stories we're constantly re-telling/revising as we go. He's a master. End of story. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Writer's Resource: Revision and Editing Tips and Tricks From The Publishing World

When revising, it's easy to become desensitized to the words on the screen and miss typos.  Especially if you're writing from the same device, day after day, using the same font style and size.  While typos might not seem like a big deal, they can be the difference between coming across as a professional writer and coming across as an aspiring writer.  So before you hit send on that next partial or full request, here are a few tips and tricks to help you spot errors.

1. Review your manuscript on a different device.  

This will shake you out of your comfort zone and help you spot errors that you otherwise might have missed.  If you write on a desk top, consider reviewing on your ereader or tablet.  If you write on a tablet, shake it up and review from your phone.

2. Change the font.

Your eyes may be numb to your standard Times New Roman 12pt, so when proofing consider increasing to 14pt, change the color, or switch to Courier or another font you're less accustomed to.

3.  Read aloud. 

This is a great way to spot missing words that your mind auto-fills when reading.  It will also help you spot awkward sentences and unnatural dialogue.  Consider doing this with a critique partner for additional input.

4.  Increase the margin size.

You'll reduce the words on the page, which will make it easier for your brain to focus.

5. Highlight the text or add a background color.

Similar to changing the font color, changing the color around the font will shake up the way your brain processes the words.

6. Leverage text-to-speak software and apps. (Hint: the iPhone comes with one!)

Like reading aloud, this will help you find missing words and awkward sentences.  It's also a great option for people with long work commutes, as you can listen during your writing downtime and see how your story pacing is progressing.  Even better is that anyone with an iOS 5 already has text-to-speak capabilities.  Here is a handy video that shows you how to activate it.

7. Take a looong break.

You've heard me preach about the benefits of taking a Ross-and-Rachel-style break from manuscripts before, so I won't harp too much on this. But taking time away from a story will help you shake off your comfort with the words so you can spot the errors you previously read right through.

8.  Use beta readers and critique partners.

Another set of eyes is always a must before you send anything off to an agent or editor.

9. Only edit one chapter a day.

Avoid power-revising, and instead give yourself longer stretches of time to process fewer words.  Scour vs. skim. Your brain will thank you.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Taking Inspiration from Great First Lines

Did you know that Stephen King spends months, even years writing the first few lines of his novels? (Read the article in The Atlantic here.)

One of the things King says in the interview is this: "But there's one thing I'm sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this."

Just about every literary agent and editor I've ever heard speak agrees that first lines are vitally important in the modern literary world. This article from The Telegraph theorizes that this is largely due to the distractions of technology and the ability to "drop" a book and download another instantly if the first one doesn't grab you immediately.


So how do you make sure the first lines of your manuscript hook your readers? One of the best ways is to study examples of great ones from literature. Lines like "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." (1984) and "Marley was dead: to begin with." (A Christmas Carol) grab the reader instantly—you want to read on to find out why that would be, or why that would have been said like that. Check out an extensive list of great first lines here on Pub(lishing) Crawl.

If you need help getting your own first lines into shape, here are some online resources that may help:

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Online Writing Lessons



Confession: I'm a lecture addict. If I had my way, I'd be a full-time student for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, I have bills to pay so I cope by listening to lectures on my drive to and from work and watching lessons online while eating dinner.

Here are a few of my favorite sites for other writers:


  • Obviously, there's Ted.com with great lectures by the likes of Elizabeth Gilbert (her talk on "genius" is fantastic), Isabelle Allende, Mac Barnett, and so many others. 
  • But, did you know that there's a Ted-Ed site? And it has a whole playlist dedicated to writing. It even includes one by Kate Messner on "How to Build a Fictional World."
  • And then of course the fantastic editor Cheryl Klein from Scholastic has a podcast called The Narrative Breakdown dedicated to story that she records paired with a screenwriter (a great twist because screenwriting technique is great for writing engaging plots). 
  • Over the summer I was lucky enough to attend Breadloaf Writer's Conference, a place that hauls in some of the best writers in the world to teach lovely little classes and larger lectures. What a treat to know that they have the lectures and readings online for everyone to attend. (FYI they don't have a Young Adult program, but the lectures are still wonderful, and it's fascinating to hear from poets and non-fiction writers as well.)
  • On the YA front, John Green analyzes the classics and there's a lot to be learned as he articulates what Fitzgerald, Salinger, and others have managed to pull of with language. Go to Crash Course Literature.
  • And then there's the classic Coursera. The classes change around as they start and end at different times so you'll have to check it regularly to see its offerings. My favorite course thus far was a marketing 101 class taught by staff at Wharton. While not a writing course, it did give me a number of ideas for marketing myself and any books I'm lucky enough to publish. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Writer's Resource: Pub(lishing) Crawl

One of the best times of my day is when I pull up my blog reader (usually on my phone these days, since the baby makes laptop time scarce) and read the new posts. I follow a few dozen writing blogs, some written by agents, some by editors, and some by aspiring or published authors.

I find myself bookmarking posts from one of them far more frequently than any of the others, so I thought it would be a good idea to highlight it here as a writer's resource.

Pub Crawl Logo

Pub(lishing) Crawl is, in their own words, "...a group of authors and industry professionals (formerly known as Let the Words Flow) who blog about all things writing, publishing, and books!"

According to their Who We Are page, there are currently 16 contributors, including editors, a bookseller, a sales rep, and authors. They post on a huge variety of topics, including writing and editing techniques, new book releases, and tips on how to survive life as a published author. They also host giveaways and often feature guest bloggers, so there's always a good reason to check back frequently.

What are your favorite writing-related blogs?