Friday, February 09, 2007

How, then, shall we be writers?

from Jacqueline

I’ve been struggling with an important writerly question of late, that is: How can I be a better writer? I know that seems an all-encompassing inquiry, however, it is one that shadows my life as a writer, sitting down next to me at the computer, leaning over me as I read a piece I’ve just written, and generally nudging me, sometimes not gently. And this is not the gremlin, the nasty little bugger who creeps up, looks at his hands (probably to see if those nails are sharp enough to scratch across the page and wreck it), and says, “You think you’re a what? Give me a break, lady!.” No, this is the Question: How, then, shall I be a writer?

I remember my first editor, just after the deal was done and MAISIE DOBBS was purchased, and we were given the “all clear” to actually talk to each other. We exchanged niceties, me gushing, saying how thrilled I was – and we know that was an understatement. My first book sold and an editor, you bet I was over the moon. Then, in the next breath, she said, “Right, now that’s done, we’ll see if you’ve got what it takes to be a professional writer.” And there I was, in Jacqueline’s Labyrinth, with the Fawn.

But here I am, wondering how I can be a better writer, a more dexterous manipulator of words, of images, ideas. How do I raise the bar on myself?

For some years now I’ve joined writers’ workshops that grasp my attention, that leap out from a catalog or a flyer, and I’ve certainly been fortunate in finding one that attracts some amazing writers – I’ve even been able to direct one or two into the arms of my agent. It was at one of those workshops where I was put on the spot. I don’t advertise myself as an already published writer, though some of my cohorts in class know, so I was surprised one day when a fellow student turned to me and asked (with all the class listening), “I can’t understand why you do this, you’re already a writer.” So I explained that, as I saw it, writing was like a muscle – you have to cross train, you have to keep yourself limber, you have to challenge your own performance, and sometimes that means two things at once – going back to basics, and raising the bar. Kind of like riding dressage. Every day I work on all the aspects of riding that a raw beginner works on, then I’m looking for that one move, sometimes even that one thought, that will propel us, me and my horse, though the plateau, into another sphere of experience, another level of accomplishment. And then I work to keep that, every second, because I may have her deeply engaged in the movement one second, and just the merest movement in my body can bring her out of it, so I go back, back to basics. Sometimes I feel that, with the reins in my hands, it’s like playing a concerto, with each finger teasing out the melody. A bit like writing.

There are days when my fingers glide across the keyboard, words I’ve never even spoken before tumbling out onto the page to create a scene, an image, a building block in the story that I know really works. But as my dressage trainer said the other day – yes, a particularly challenging day – “You can’t expect yesterday’s ride today. It’s another day, the horse is the same horse, but different today, and you’re different today.”

But it still begs the question: How do I have more of those good days? This whole discourse between me and myself, on how I can raise the bar, went to a new level just recently, following an event where I was a speaker. In conversation with other authors, several mentioned having MFA’s in Creative Writing. That’s it, thought I. That’s what I need, the academic immersion into my craft. So I set about looking into MFA programs. I spoke to my husband, who said, “You need to speak to some people, other authors, your editor, people who can best advise you.” This was another way of saying, “This is a big one, and I don’t want to be part of the decision.” So I called my editor, well, sort of, because she moved to a new publisher recently, and I don’t have a new one, and I really trust her counsel, so I turned to her. I told her about the MFA, and about this state of angst I was getting into about being a more accomplished writer. She confessed to being taken aback, because she’d never had that question from an author before, then she said she was doubtful about the MFA. “It might push you back,” she said. Then she went on to say, “Whenever we get a manuscript that’s all big words and pseudo-powerful images, but with one-dimensional characters and a plot that goes up into the ether, we all look at each other and roll our eyes, and we say,’ It’s another MFA!’”

So, perhaps not an MFA. But I’m still thinking about it.

In the meantime, I’m doing what I’ve always done. I’m collecting words and images, ideas and observations, keeping them all in my little notebook to bring out. Yesterday, for example, I was driving up to the Bay Area, a six hour journey, and listening to Bob Spitz’s book, The Beatles, on CD. It’s a great book, and I love the way he used words, strings together images and brings the whole book alive with story. Then he used the word, “crucible.” I repeated that word out loud. Crucible. I rolled it around my tongue, paused the CD so I could hear myself, and put “crucible” into a sentence. Of course, I know the word, but I had never used it before, not in my writing. I played with it for a while, and wondered how I might use that word, and what it might bring to a sentence, a scene a paragraph. Words are my building blocks, in the same way as one tiny movement with one finger to the reins will bring Sara’s trot alive with impulsion. Impulsion: that’s a word used liberally in the equestrian world, and it’s what I’m looking for in my writing.

I collect images, look out at fields, or a building, and ask, “How do I describe this, in effective, tight, lyrical prose?” In the acknowledgement to his book, “Peace Like A River,” Lief Enger thanked the editors from the early years of his newspaper career, for driving away the tendency to use adjectives. So, I’ve doubled my vigilance, looking out with my beady eyes for those pesky little adjectives. And adverbs – I’m practiced in the art of killing adverbs. One of my teachers once made us go through a piece we’d just written, to take out every word ending in “ly.” The writing became so tight it was as if I’d injected it with steel rods. These are basics, but it’s so easy to forget the basics when you’re on a deadline that allows no time to linger.

And of course, I read, read, read. And even when I’m not writing a novel, I’m writing something else. I listen to books on CD when I’m driving, to get a better sense of rhythm and pace, and I listen and read poetry to broaden my idea of what can be done with words. But right now, none of that seems enough. I’m looking for the next stepping stone, the next aid to the movement, something to create impulsion to drive me from this plateau, up to the next.

So, here’s my question, to each of you writers out there – and I know a lot more read this blog than comment, because I receive emails from you. And you non-writers, what do you think?: How do you raise the bar for yourself? What do you do to take your writing – or your anything – to a new level? Patty, Cornelia, Our Polly, Jim-James – what is the key? How about you people who are also engaged in the martial arts – that’s the sort of practice that leads to breakthroughs in all aspects of life. Pari, are you there? What do you think?

I’ve been on panels at all sorts of conferences, but I have never seen a panel on (for example), “Taking Your Writing To The Next Level.” I think it should be a real dishing session, rather than four talking heads.

Somehow, I think there’s a key in doing more of the same, and practicing doing it differently, just as, when I am riding dressage, I try different movements of my body to bring about the change I want. Sometimes I have to think out of the box, sometimes, I just have to envision the perfect movement. Mostly, like a concert pianist, I have to be in the moment, while paying attention to the next. And I watch the real experts, because that’s something to aspire to. A few days ago, in a dressage lesson, I was trying to effect a certain move with more precision, and both Sara, my horse, and I were sweating. I trotted to a halt alongside my trainer and said, “Sometimes it’s like knocking down a wall to find a door."

Thoughts, anyone? Something to ponder over the weekend, perhaps?

PS: I didn't have a chance to read yesterday's post until I turned up here to post my piece for the day - interesting, that we're dancing on the same sort of ground.


  1. Just what you're doing, Jacqueline.

    Reading. Writing. Living.

    Certainly not an MFA, where your instructors likely will have far less expertise than you bring to the table.

    I was depressed a while back when I read an interview with Larry L. King who said he could feel his writing prowess start to wane around age 50. Jeez, I didn't start writing fiction until I was 40. I need another 20 years or so to polish my craft. (Or, I'll just continue to steal my material from Jim Born).

  2. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, Paul - and sorry, I just can't get over the Polly thing.

    Don't be depressed about Larry L. King - there are people who don't even start writing until they are in their 70's or 80's, and there are those who just go on until they drop. Think of Patrick O'Brian, or P.D. James, of Harriet Doerr (wasn't she in her 60's before she wrote her first novel), or Mary Wesley, who was in her 70's. I wrote my first when I was 45, so I'm hoping there's plenty of time to hone the skills, to leap a few levels before I sign up for that big literary festival in the sky and zoom off to listen to the luminaries already up there.

    I guess you're right, keep on doing what I'm doing, all the time. I may be looking for a key that I already have in my hand. And I can always steal from Jim Born.

  3. Jacqueline. Oh how you do see to the truth of things. You have sensitivities and subtleties that you never even see. And then there's your writing. It's already wonderfully well done, but I admire you for looking for the next level. If you left off looking, your writing would turn stale and you would wonder what was missing from your creativity. An MFA? NO! A big fat NO. A degree of that magnitude is to give you a structure to build your own creativity on. You already have that. An MFA is a gruelling thing and will just put right back in the box that you're trying to get yourself out of. You're doing the right things in looking around: writers groups, self challenges with words, sentences, descriptives and anything you see that tweaks your inspiration. Keep it up. However, if you do want a suggestion - do what I did: take a couple of single semester courses on dissecting short stories. Better yet, genre short stories. I took one on fantasy and science fiction - from vintage Charles Dickens (The Signalman)all the way through to a recent one by Greg Bear. We even spent several weeks on studying Lord of the Rings. The teacher was incredibly gifted and I came out with a whole new awareness of the subtleties of the written word and manipulation of the reader. On another tack: I keep, and constantly reread several authors because of the way they write and how effortlessly they seem to do so. Those writers include: Terry Pratchett, Ngaio Marsh, Garrison Allen, David Eddings (Belgariad and Mallorean only), Dorothy L. Sayers, H. Rider Haggard (he gets a bit longwinded sometimes), Mary Grant Bruce (Vintage Australian children's author), Tolkein, recently YOU, Nancy Atherton, Susan Kandel, and quite a number of singular works by mixed authors. Why do I keep going back to them? Because of the writing.

    Don't panic about the MFA thing. I have to deflect my husband's paranoia about this very issue all of the time. He's absolutely brilliant and talented, but he never finished art school. He learned the majority of what he needed to know by talking to other artists, spending extensive quality time with his heroes in museums like the Tate, collecting books on masterartists as well as other artists he likes - and actually reads them. Etc. And he uses what he learns - every day!

    Creativity is a journey, an ongoing learning process that never stops. As Bob puts it, we'll be painting till they prise the brushes from our cold dead fingers - and even then, they might have some difficulty. I'm self taught too. My current self challenge is to paint a painting daily and see where it leads. Today's conclusion is: I'm not ready to back to painting portraits yet.

    So super zen hugs to you and your creativity, Jacqueline. I think you're doing just fine. And I can't wait for the next book. :-D


  4. Oh, yeah. And Mickey Spillane! He writes a wicked good short story. My fave is 'The Affair of the Dragon Lady' from that brilliant anthology of Spillane's works, 'Together We Kill'. Superb!


  5. Jacqueline,
    As a writer and a show jumper, my thanks for the post -- I especially like the idea of "impulsion" as a writing term.
    For whatever it's worth, a friend of mine has an MFA in poetry from a very good program and says it was a huge waste of time (and he's been nominated for a Pushcart, so he's pretty good). I've got a trunkful of bits at the barn, and once a year or so I'll go spend a bunch of money on a new one, but the one that works best is still that same old bit, you know? Isn't is about working with what we've got so we're ready to jump the big line, or nail the passage, or write the next book?

  6. from Jacqueline

    Marianne, wow, thanks so much for your words of wisdom - and it's really interesting to hear about your husband and is artworks. One of my friends is an extraordinarily accomplished musician, and when he was in school, one of his teachers said that, because of the creativity that was already in his grasp, he would be well advised not to go to music school, but instead just keep experimenting - so he's lived all over the place, and in different cultures, learning their music - in Turkey with gypsies, on a reservation, with Native Americans, for example. And now he can turn his hand to everything from scoring a Shakespeare play, to organizing a group of musicians from across the globe to come together to make music. He just soaked up that inspiration from every possible corner of the musical universe. Maybe that's the lesson.

    And thank you, Lisa - and what a great analogy, with the bit. Working with what we've got - yes, when you're in the moment with your work, that's what it comes down to.

    As Marianne said, "Creativity is a journey." A bit like working a relationship with a person, or a horse!

  7. Hey, Our J. I just arrived at the hotel in Birmingham, AL, so I'm tuning in a bit late. Wonderful post. I think reading great literature and poetry is very important, seeing how the masters use words and images. And writing, writing, writing.

  8. My sister is a writer who has occassionally taught creative writing. Last year, she put together some daily writing exercises for herself and her students.

    Rather like exercising a horse or dog everyday.... Must do it or "things" stiffen.

  9. Hey, Patty, lovely to hear from you. It seems to come back to those old chestnuts, doesn't it - reading great literature, and - as you say - writing, writing, writing.

    And thanks, Alice, for that link - the last thing I want is creative muscle atrophy (or CMA)!

  10. Miss J.,

    I love the candor in this post, and the topic.

    For me, the best way to encourage those muscles to grow is to use them in different ways than you usually do. I start with an image or a sound, instead of a word.

    It's said that for folks with synaesthesia, numbers have colors. I'm aiming for words that have smells. Or texture.

  11. Louise, I love your response. I've had a few emails since writing this post (no names mentioned) indicating that this subject is one that nags writers at all levels, whether raw and unpublished, or those who have achieved the sort of mastery that the rest of us can only dream of.

    I think that, part of the yearning towards mastery with the written word, is the desire to achieve a deeper connection, via language, with images, with sounds, with smells, texture, thoughts, actions. In playing with just one fragrance, for example - trying on words and joining them together to see if they fit - we come closer to a description that is not simply read, but touched, seen, smelled. It's the challenge of giving the reader an experience that is beyond the one-dimensional, something that brings the senses alive - so the process of creating a story becomes a true journey where the writer breathes life into time, place and character, and the reader is given a greater opportunity to have a deep sense of connection with the story.

    Thank you, Louise. I think your comment has helped me better voice, from the heart, what I am striving for all the time, and what I am talking about when I say I want to raise the bar. It's that desire to constantly render the relationship I have with my work a richer experience, and, hopefully, as a result, more intense, more satisfying, for the reader. I don't think that work, that raising of the bar, ever ends

  12. I find I become a better writer by stretching.

    Sometimes I fail. But I think it's good, both with work that I'm proposing and work I'm doing, to think: this won't be quite the same as the last work. It needs to be better. Better might mean a more complex plot. Or at least a more compelling plot. Stronger characterization yet not slowing pace. Better sense of place (without slowing the pace). More vivid writing.

    I've recently tried something a little different and I'm finding it helps me stretch and it's psychologically invigorating, too.

    I'm writing something different.

    I've got a 4-book contract for thrillers and I write tons of nonfiction for a living.

    But "just for fun" I started writing a YA (actually probably a little younger reader than that, say middle school) fantasy novel. I'm having a blast. I didn't start it thinking, "I'll finish this and try to get it published."

    I started it thinking, "This might be fun." And I thought my kids might be amused. But my kids were really amused, which convinced me to keep going. And it's so different (in many ways) from my published works that I'm finding new energy and voices and techniques that can help the other works.

    And now I'm thinking, "This sucker is going to get published and it's gonna be great."

    Mark Terry

  13. An incredible post that sums up thoughts I've been having every day for the past few years.

    We must continually set goals, study and practice the craft, and make writing the priority in our lives.

  14. Thank you, Mark, thank you, Judith.

    Your comment reminded me of a writing "project" I began a couple of years ago, and put aside. It was while I was writing my third novel, Pardonable Lies, that I had to write a dark scene that just took everything out of me, because it was based upon my visit to the WW1 battlefields of Flanders. When I finished that scene, I knew I had to do something to raise my spirits, when, out of the blue a whole story came to me with a completely new set of characters, a funny blend of mystery and comedy, and I just set to writing the first chapter. I giggled myself silly as I was writing, the immersion into something different not only changing the mood, but challenging me. Thing is, I sort of abandoned it after that first chapter, but now (based upon your post), I think I might take more time to "play" with that story.

    Judith, I know from some of the responses I've received that my concerns, my deep desire to "raise the bar" has struck a chord. It seems to come down to the truth that the pilgrimage toward the illusive "better" is crucial, because that particular holy grail is a myth. Every writer struggles with this question, if not all the time, then at some point or another. We can only keep trying.

  15. Jacqueline, hopefully you won't mind some ideas from a newcomer to the blog, and a babe in the writing woods.

    I think a lot can be learned from other arts and the way those artists approach the same problem.

    Jimi Hendrix used to play his guitar like a saxophone, by analysing the way the notes ran together. Blues harmonica players learned to bend notes and play in different keys on an instrument that was never designed for those uses. Hip hop artists took other people's music and made audio collages. Brian Eno designed a deck of cards with prompts to help him see his work from different perspectives.

    Music can be an influence on the rhythm of writing. Jeff Noon used it to great effect in NEEDLE IN THE GROOVE. James Ellroy's WHITE JAZZ is much the same, just a different genre of music.

    Like others have said, live life. Maybe learn about something completely new, like taking a course in psychology or religion. Switch the focus from the writing craft to learning about people. What drives us all, makes us look at the world in the way we do?

    Just putting some ideas out there. It sounds like you know exactly what you're doing already, and just needed everyone else to remind you. :)