alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions

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It’s Not About You + Trouble

Glimmer Train always has such good stuff.

Someone recently told me that they had decided not to take a writing class because of the inevitable presence of  folks who use the workshop to display their own critical smarty-pants, broadcast the tones of their mellifluous voices, and who aren’t willing to take seriously the work that’s in front of them. I admit that I have spent plenty of workshops fuming with impatience, head bent over my papers so no one can see my eyes rolling, but I evenutally realized, as Jeremiah Chamberlin says in this article, that Workshop Is Not About Me (or My Work). The point of a workshop is to become a better writer, and listening to a group of strangers tell you that they, personally, prefer a story with more post-apocalyptic biker fairies, isn’t how that happens.

When I’m working on one of those virtuous critiques of someone else’s story that seems to be all about helping them out, but instead is all about me making my own stories better, I’m always harping on trouble. Trouble is something I have trouble with, too. Most of us writer-types like peaceful lives — it’s why we stay locked up behind closed doors making things up on a keyboard when we could be out in the world lying, shooting, screwing, stealing, cooking meth and picking daisies. We tend to be fond of our characters, and, unconciously, at least, we want them to have peaceful lives too. But that’s why ‘happily ever after’ traditionally comes at the end of the story – now that everyone’s happy there’s nothing left to tell. Aaron Gwyn gives good advice for the hows and whys of getting some Trouble into your stories.

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What a Story Does

I was commenting on someone else’s story today, and I wanted to say something about what a story is, what it does, and why having characters moving around on the page for 4500 words doesn’t necessarily equal a story.

I knew there was a quote that expressed this beautifully and directly. A quote that I really need to keep in mind when I’m doing my own work, because I am also regularly guilty of characters who meander happily (or miserably) without actually getting anywhere.

It’s from David Allan Cates, and it goes like this:

[Stories] explain the day the heart opened, the day the heart closed. They explain how we became who we are, how we became aware of something ugly in ourselves or the world, or beautiful. How we lost faith. How we found it. And how, exactly, to the moment, to the second, we finally—albeit briefly—understood.

Damn, you know. I think that pretty much covers it. I’m going to tape that up over my desk.

(Read the rest of the article at Glimmer Train).

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More good advice

This month’s Glimmer Train bulletin is just chock full of good advice.

Several good tips here from Bruce McAllister, writing coach & former director of creative writing at the University of Redlands. I was most intrigued by this one:

  • Copy out sections or whole stories they love. (It’s “play and mastery”—we know it as children, as we know joy and passion in creative work, though we often block it as adults)

I’ve seen it before, and have always been tempted, but never done it. My obstacle is an efficiency fallacy. There is only so much time available for writing work (especially right now) and I tend to feel that I should be spending it getting my own stories on paper, not doing homework (Steps towards being a novelist:  #1. Write novel.) Exercises are for that mythical “extra” writing time I expect to have, separate from actual writing time.

I have been noticing lately when reading how other writers approach their stories, usually thinking along the lines of “I would never choose those words to tell a story” or “those sentences are so different from mine.” Maybe I’m halfway there. But I can see how actually typing would be like inhabiting someone else’s body for a while. Which is one of the reasons to be a writer in the first place, so maybe I’ll try it.

Anyone else done this one?

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Doing It Again

Revision is something I struggle with. For years, I didn’t know what it meant. I thought it was some sort of advanced authorial copyediting, where I leaned back and admired the matchless sheen of my prose and gave the 100-watt corners an extra buff with the word-chamois to bring them up to 110.

That wasn’t revision, that was narcissism. It was also kind of boring. Real revision – taking apart your story, your characters, your presumptions, your plots, your locations, your motivations piece-by-piece, can be exhilarating.

It’s also – for me, at least – a miserable, tooth-gnashing, soul-destroying self-flagellation. In life, I’m a hard-core pessimist. But in first drafts, I’m sunshine pollyanna. I absolutely believe that I can write anything I like, that the good stuff comes from the uninterrupted, unmediated unconcious, and that I, as writing manuals are so fond of instructing, “can always fix it later.”

Good advice. Except they never mention just how hard that fix is. Maybe there’s some zen koan secret to it, where if I would just give up and stop struggling, stop fixating on my original inspiration, stop believing that the finished product should have a passing relation to why I wanted to write the story in the first place, I would be writing better stories.

I have been helped, psychologically, by watching some writer friends go through the same thing. Seeing their work taken down 19 or 20 pegs in critique, and seeing them come back with a whole new manuscript, re-thought, re-considered, and re-written. The act of watching it happen in someone else somehow makes it more possible. Because I know in the end my problem with revision is not about craft: it’s about fear.

As Karen Outen says in this article from Glimmer Train, “The general fear of revision is, of course, simply our fear that what we want from our stories cannot be achieved.” She’s 100% right. And while I think I’m a long way from the “joyful” she’s talking about, every little bit helps.

Any of you other writers want to comment on your feelings about revision? I would really love to hear how it works for someone else. I even understand that there are some people/loonies out there who claim to love revision, and say it’s their favorite part of the process.