I am making a transition in my writing life. The reason for this is the complete derailment I experienced in the earlier part of this year. I know that isn’t much of an explanation, but this short version is free of negativity and the temptation to succumb to it. I could go on and on telling you what went wrong and how I allowed it to happen, but I do not want to contaminate anyone’s thought process with my own difficulties. We’re writers; we’ll manufacture plenty of woes on our own without someone spoon feeding suggestions to us.
The good news for me is that my writing passion is starting to return. The stories are creeping back into my head like deer tentatively stepping from the security of the forest into the wide-open unknown of the meadow. It was my own fault they were driven away in the first place, and I must and am taking responsibility for this.
For a short time I did nothing positive toward my writing life. The only connection I maintained to writing was reading. I hid out in books, believing what I did was helpful, but I was living in denial. One piece of writing advice that actually saved me was to do something different altogether. I was struggling anyhow, so why force something that wasn’t coming to me naturally? Instead, I walked.
My husband and I began hiking familiar trails close to home. I welcomed the exercise and fresh air like old friends. We kept at it, and now we look forward to seeking new places to walk. I took pictures with my cellphone during our hikes, playing at the most amateur form of photography. The simple act of creativity spurred my mind. I began to mentally describe what I saw and fashioned one or two-line stories.
My efforts probably don’t sound very constructive to the writing life except for the simple fact that they placed my focus squarely back on writing. I felt like an adult who had successfully recaptured the magical thrill of Christmas morning. All the superfluous baggage that people will try to tell you (or you’ll convince yourself of) is part of the writing life simply disappeared.
Again, I’m avoiding detailing exactly what those bad things were for me so that my followers won’t latch on to them. I’m also cautious in supplying instruction on how to overcome them because too many times we grasp a particular piece of advice as a hard and fast solution to our problems. When it doesn’t work, we become more despondent and depressed than we were at the beginning. In short, you must proceed fearlessly on your own to discover and apply what works for you. Fellow writers can cheer you from the sidelines, but they cannot prop you up nor do the work for you.
With a deep sigh of relief and contentment, I am single-mindedly focused on writing. The scales have fallen away from my eyes, the chains from my hands, and I am free to write.
Anyone who knows me knows I adore reading. And for those who don’t know me, it won’t take much time spent in my presence, whether in real life or via social media, to discover this. Recently, I’ve been reading the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I assigned this task to myself as part of the research for my new novel. My goal was to gain a better understanding of Fitzgerald through his writing first, and then I would tackle books of literary commentary as well as biographies of the man, the author, and his life.
I’m not sure where to begin with my review of Fitzgerald’s short stories because I must admit it isn’t favorable in the least. I must also confess my amazement that he earned the money he did during the era in which he wrote. This is especially astounding considering how small the payment is among literary journals today. According to the Dollar Times inflation calculator, four thousand dollars for “At Your Age” in 1929 would be like earning $55, 327.48 in 2016. The section notes prior to the story state this was his “top story price.” I interpret that as price per story and not salary for the year. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but either way, Fitzgerald was simply not that good an author.
If you read one short story, you’ve read them all and his novels as well. Beautiful, indifferent debutantes who pick up and drop men like they’re choosing and discarding shoes; rich ambitious fellas, possibly a football hero, who undoubtedly attended/will attend either Princeton, Yale or Harvard; a sprinkling of drunks, some hopeless, some loveable; endless comparisons between the North and the South or America and Europe; and the ambitious pursuit of money, fame, and power over, and over, and over again. The most unforgivable crime Fitzgerald committed in this reader’s eyes was to cannibalize his own short stories for the sake of his novels. Worse was the fact that his agent, editors, and publishers allowed him to get away with this.
Ridiculous and cliché are the two words that came to mind the most as I read Fitzgerald. The scenarios portrayed were outlandish and unbelievable, and I’m not counting “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” when I say this. Why anyone, even fictional, would tolerate the behavior depicted among the characters is beyond me. I tried to keep in mind that attitudes and actions were different in the 20s and 30s, but my opinion of the situation often deteriorated to how stupid can one person be and how much longer before he/she quits putting up with this garbage? Perhaps this was common behavior among the rich and lovesick back then. I honestly couldn’t say.
None of Fitzgerald’s stories were memorable. As I looked back through the book, I tried to recall the storylines and characters by the title alone, but ended up cheating and reading the section notes. The only exception was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and that was because it had been made into a movie. So, I’m left wondering who decides what makes a piece of literature a classic. The death of the author, the passing of time, the payment received, popularity with the audience at the time of publication, being made into a movie, or some combination thereof? I shudder to think how the last four delineators will make classics of some of the drivel being produced today.
I don’t know what percentage of readers would stand with me in my assessment of Fitzgerald’s writing. Hopefully, I’ll find the commentaries and biographies more interesting. From what I already know about him, I believe if he had consumed less alcohol and been more content to hone his craft than pursue fame and fortune, he would have moved beyond his narrow world, experienced life to a greater degree, and found something new to write about. In the end, I’ll give Fitzgerald credit for leaving writers a good lesson even though he failed to learn it himself.
She listened as he walked through the house, the closing door indicating his departure, a long silence during which she envisioned him performing the tasks in preparation for mowing the grass, and finally the sound of the tractor rumbling awake.
Long shadows grasped at the remains of the day and sleep tempted her eyes with long, slow blinks. Neither was a match for her desire to read or reclaim her love’s presence. She hadn’t lost his company in its entirety, but as long as the days continued to lengthen with the promise of daylight, her man would be hard pressed to sit still beside her reading a book.
He came late to reading, not discovering his favorite genre until well into adulthood. Other hobbies, perfectly acceptable activities, had always led him in other directions. This, combined with his mind’s pressing need spurred on by guilt, was why he rushed to complete as many chores as possible from dawn to dusk on the weekends.
And if pressed to admit, he would confess that reading during the long hours of summer was burning precious daylight that could be spent performing all those tasks that required his attention. The list was never-ending. This was why she longed for winter.
For every day past the summer solstice, every minute of daylight lost, brought her a tiny bit closer to reclaiming her love’s presence. Summer would be bedded beneath their children’s return to school and the soft crinkle of autumn’s falling leaves. Schedule and routine would return with chill air and morning frost. The blanket of nightfall would once again shroud the days and return the husband to his wife, their time once again entwined.
Winter evenings feel shorter to the senses. Our eyes see the dark and tell our minds to go to bed unless one’s eyes are trained upon a book, and then the mind willingly travels all over the world and throughout time. The couple would be together in body, yet journeying in their separate worlds. She could hardly wait for the ritual to return.
She knew better than to press him now while there was still work to be done. She would only succeed in crushing his fragile, growing love of reading. It was also not important that he ever read as voraciously as she. What was important was their silent togetherness that began on Friday evenings and lasted until he returned to work on Monday: the time they spent reading.
Dusty and smelling of grass, he tiptoed to the shower. When he reappeared, he settled on the couch. His deep breath of satisfaction turned into a stretch and a yawn. She looked up from her book to assess his closed eyes and lolling head. He was asleep, but she was the one dreaming of early snow.
Writers are an odd lot. We’d be the first to admit it. Writer’s post things like “That moment when you finish a book, look around, and realize that everyone is just carrying on with their lives as though you didn’t just experience emotional trauma at the hands of a paperback.” And because we’re writers, we’re also readers. At least we should be.
We reading/writing types are deeply and emotionally attached to the characters we read about. They become real for us in a way that often defies description. The closest I can come is to say that when I finish a well-written book, I feel as if I’m leaving behind great friends. Non-readers may scoff at us, suggesting that we simply re-read the book. That is an option, but what we want as readers is to move forward with our favorite characters, possibly gathering them all together regardless of genre, entwining them in our lives. That may seem a titch odd, but what can I say? We’re artists; perhaps this is why we write.
The interesting thing I have discovered as a reader/writer is that just like our real friends, we each have different criteria for which fictional characters we will allow in our lives. What first brought this to my attention was when I learned that my friend was reading Gone With the Wind for her classical literature book club. We discussed the book over lunch during which I admitted that I pushed myself to read it and could barely make it halfway through. I hated every minute of that piece of vintage literary fluff which actually surprised me because it came so highly recommended. After Margaret Mitchell’s endless declarations about the quaint South and dreary passages of battle scenes, the book was incredibly mediocre. Yet it wasn’t the writing that ruined it for me.
Scarlett was. I hated her. Each self-centered deed and word I had to endure at the hands of Scarlett made me want to beat her with a stick. I rooted against her at every turn and rejoiced when she didn’t get her way. Throw in spineless Ashley and sickening Melanie, and there was no way I was going to finish this book. I simply cannot stand annoying people in my real life, so why would I waste my time enduring three fictional nuisances? My friend, on the other hand, found Scarlett to be funny in her total self-absorption. Maybe my friend is more patient that I am.
Then Dale came to mind. She’s a character from Joanna Trollope’s book, Other People’s Children. Dale was every bit as self-serving and manipulative as Scarlett and more so because she possessed a psychological hold on two other characters. She was evil, she was brilliant. I hated her with a passion and seriously considered writing Mrs. Trollope to request a sequel in which Dale was killed off slowly and painfully.
So what was the difference? Well, I’d never willingly allow someone like Dale in my life, but I wouldn’t hesitate to take her head on either. Whereas pathetic, annoying Scarlett wouldn’t earn a second glance from me as I ignored her in the most obvious ways possible. However, we’re dealing with the fictional realm, and in this world, Scarlett would never be able to compete with Dale as a worthy opponent and one that would engage me as a reader. Where Margaret Mitchell failed with Scarlett, Joanna Trollope succeeded with Dale.
In addition to the writing behind amazing characters that have the ability to evoke great response from the reader, our desires and tolerances make them appealing to us whether they are the protagonist, antagonist, or peripheral character. These factors combined determine who we will welcome into our minds. The beauty of this is that your choices don’t have to be all pleasant ones. You can fall for the bad character without any harmful side effects unlike real life where allowing the wicked person into your life may destroy you. It’s quite brilliant, really, and I wonder why more people don’t read.
I stopped reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice forty-two pages before the end of the book. I am familiar with the conclusion, and I have viewed both the Jennifer Ehle version of the movie as well as the Keira Knightly version (the Jennifer Ehle is far superior), and yet I put the book down for no other reason than to extend my own enjoyment. I’ll never tire of the tension between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Jane’s sweet disposition, or even Mrs. Bennet’s endless rambling and scheming plans to marry off her daughters.
Pride and Prejudice is the first in a list of books that I am reading not only for pleasure but also for a close study of classical literature as suggested by Francine Prose in her book, Reading Like a Writer. The language alone inspires me to write better. I do have to wonder, though, if Jane Austen would have liked the benefit of word searches. While her pet words do not detract from the story in any way, she does have a few that she repeatedly employs. I find it encouraging that someone who is considered a master of writing and storytelling made such a simple error, and it is certainly one that I am willing to overlook.
Most importantly, what I am learning from reading Pride and Prejudice is that great writing appears in many different styles that transcend time. I may acquire a few talents from Jane Austen, and being compared to her would be no small compliment, but I have a voice of my own to hone and hopefully will do so until one day, when someone reads a passage from my books, they will be able to say, “Clearly, this is HL Gibson’s writing, and it is remarkably well done.”
I first spied Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer, while shelving at my former job. I sneaked a few moments to read the first few pages and instantly fell in love. The sentence that resonated with me, “Like most–maybe all–writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books,” combined with, “Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors,” confirmed for me that I had found a kindred spirit. Her passion for reading and writing and the process of learning by indulging in both was the best piece of advice I had ever heard. Mrs. Prose’s comments awakened in me what I always believed to be true: great writing is an organic process that comes from creating beyond outlines and plot-pointed structures with perfect character arcs.
Great writing begins with close reading and follows with careful consideration for every word that will become a sentence, which will become a paragraph. This isn’t to say that Mrs. Prose or I believe writing should be utter chaos without any structure, but I trust if one applied her approach to their own writing, he or she would see amazing growth in how they create characters, employ narration and dialogue, and present details and gestures.
Woven throughout the book are examples from great writers that will back up what Mrs. Prose is teaching. You don’t need to be familiar with these authors or their works to appreciate them. Another reviewer I read proclaimed his dislike for Mrs. Prose’s book because he didn’t know any of the referenced works. I suspect he thought Mrs. Prose was being pretentious; I encourage you not to be intimidated by her knowledge but rather delve into the suggested reading list as soon as possible.
Another aspect of the book that appealed to me is Mrs. Prose’s admission that while there are rules in writing for the express purpose of guiding us, rules are, essentially, meant to be broken. And if you’re brave enough to ride off the reservation of writing rules, make sure you’re breaking them brilliantly.
Regardless of your preferred writing style or approach thereof, I highly recommend reading Francine Prose’s book. I would be truly surprised if you didn’t take away something positive from the experience.
Fellow author Mark Tilbury tossed out a question that is often on my mind as a reader and writer. In his post, Have Books Lost Something With Their Lack of Description, Mark asks us our opinion on today’s style of writing.
We’ve all encountered the “massive blocks of descriptive prose” to which Mark refers. Sometimes they truly are too long, too irrelevant to the story, too purple, etc., etc. I have skimmed such passages in search of the storyline and/or dialog that would put me back in the story.
However, because we’re all friends and adults here, I’m going to say that I disagree with the notion that description is informative but unnecessary. I hear all the time that the reader shouldn’t be led around by the nose; he/she should be given the opportunity to imagine the story. As an avid reader, I can honestly say that I have never felt this way about descriptive writing. On the contrary, my imagination was enhanced and grew because of the description I read including that written about journeys and the passage of time.
The key is that writers need to learn the perfect balance between too much and enough, the fine line between well-written, well-placed prose versus that which is encumbering, unnecessary. This seems like a daunting task, but I believe it can be achieved by not reducing writing to a formulaic method. In doing so, authors will elevate writing back to the level of artistic recognition it deserves.
I have never read Stephen King’s book, On Writing, but I would have to agree that abundant description about a character’s acne would be tedious. If that acne-plagued character traveled by canal boat from Pennsylvania to Ohio, then I would love the benefit of description. I would look forward to a word picture painted by the author that draws me in to the sounds, smells, and sights of the trip. It would be a perfect place to introduce traveling companions, a time for the protagonist to reflect, an opportunity to build the tension that so deliciously moves the story forward.
Even if none of the above-mentioned suggestions occur, as a reader I would still enjoy the mental images of traveling with the character, and I believe an important part of the writing would be lost if these well-written descriptions didn’t occur. As Mark mentioned in his post, they are an art form unto themselves. Like all art, value thereof still resides in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the reader. Well-written description can exist purely for the sake of entertainment.
I have to wonder if writing hasn’t gone the way of food preparation in that we no longer know how to linger over a book in the same way that we forego multiple course meals and choose to patronize fast-food restaurants. I read because I enjoy the slower pace, and while there is a place in my reading diet for the occasional literary Big Mac, more often than not, I opt for the balanced meal of description, dialog, prose, and narrative.
Now I don’t want to start a fight with screenwriters because I truly do appreciate their craft. However, using what worked in an action-packed movie and applying it to writing has resulted in fast-paced novels written with the singular hope of being turned into a movie. This has diminished writing for some of us. This influence has led to the removal of poetry and painting (mental images) from writing resulting in flat, hollows stories. Let movies be movies, appreciate them for all that they are; and let books be books, treasures not to be rushed through.