Creativity Cross-Pollinates

yves saint laurent vmfa
From now through August 27, 2017, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is featuring an exhibition of the work of Yves Saint Laurent, a trend-setting couturier who built a body of work unique in creativity and originality.

 

A whole section of the exhibit pays homage to Saint Laurent’s artistic influences, including Piet Mondrian (far right in photo above), ancient Greek vases, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Tom Wessellmann (far left in photo).

 

Artistic cross-pollination is everywhere. A prime example of art to music is Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann. Viktor Hartmann was an artist, architect, and designer.
Using photos as story starters for writers is a classic technique. Whole books have been based on that premise.

 

I’ve found the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts a fertile ground for launching stories. Several of my published stories began with VMFA exhibits: Buddha Remote, Not Mechanically Inclined, The Naked Truthand Love Me Tender.
 
Bottom line: Attend to non-written art and often inspiration strikes. Look at photos, art exhibits, paintings and pottery. Listen to the lyrics of songs and the emotions evoked by music. Think cross-pollination!

A Satisfying Writing Life

I recently read that two things will make or break a writing career. The first was passion that (among other things) wakes you in the night to jot down ideas, steals time to write, learns the craft, bounces back from rejection and criticism, and spurs investment (money implied).

 

The second was a strong submission strategy. By this, they meant, “…a streamlined, organized, efficient, highly functional, easy-to-execute…” strategy. Submitting should feel joyful rather than burdensome, and put the right work in front of the right eyes.

 

All of the above strike me as good, desirable things. And probably they are necessary for a brilliant writing career. But not all writers expect—or actually aspire to—a writing career in that sense. Surely everyone who published writing sometimes fantasizes about writing a best seller, but that is seldom a realistic goal. Perhaps writing is so inherently gratifying that it’s a necessary part of a satisfying life.

 

Satisfying Writing Life
Which brings me to important elements of a satisfying writing life. The first is enjoyment. Taking pleasure in crafting artful descriptions and effective dialogue is key. Then there is the gratification that comes from a job well-done. Every once in a while, I read something I wrote years ago and think, “Damn! That’s pretty good.” Then I smile, and return to writing with renewed energy.

 

The second in my list is writing that suits your purpose. Of course, that means you must figure out why you write. I started writing as therapy for my post-profession depression. As a former academic, I found that cooking and gardening just didn’t engage me intellectually. I did—and still do—enjoy both activities. But I need to keep my brain engaged. So, I enrolled in adult education writing classes and began learning the craft. (I’d never had a composition class, having tested out of freshman comp in college.) Today, one of the greatest joys of my writing life is doing the research to get the story line right, whether that involves the effects of ketamine on humans or the price of gasoline during the Great Depression.
Satisfying Writing Life
Writing as a source of self-esteem doesn’t require being a Steven King or a J.K. Rowling. Praise from fellow writers in classes and critique groups, and from readers, is great for my ego. And every time I have a short story or essay accepted for publication, even with no monetary reward, I feel like someone pasted a gold star of my forehead!

 

Perhaps one of the most common reasons to write, especially memoir, is to leave a legacy for family. This can be a way of letting them know who you are and how you came to be you, and/or leaving a record of their roots and the relatives who have gone before.

 

Many writers have more than one reason to write. In my opinion, why people write is less important than that it contributes to a gratifying life. Be clear in your own mind and heart about why you write, and then choose the path and activities that will achieve your goal.
Satisfying Writing Life

Choosing the Pronoun for Your Purpose

bedford handbook
I read a lot. And the more I read, the more often I’m irritated or distracted by writers who misuse pronouns. Pronouns can be subject (I/you/he/she/it), object (me/you/him/her/it), or show possession (my/your/his/her/its).

 

I came to see you. She gave it to him. The book is yours.

 

Of course, not all pronouns are singular. The plural pronouns serve all the same functionssubject (we/you/they), object (us/you/them), or possessive (our/your/their).
The most frequent offense to my readerly sensibility is confusing subjective and objective pronouns. For example, “Joe and me walked into town.” Or, “The Queen nodded to James and I.”

 

Writers seem most prone to these errors when a pronoun is in a series with proper nouns. In such cases, taking out the nouns makes the correct pronoun obvious. Few would intentionally write “Me walked into town” or “The Queen nodded to I.”

 

Another quick check is to replace the series with a plural pronoun: “Us walked into town” or “The queen nodded to we” glares like a spotlight.

 

Ultimately, correctness depends on intention. “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than I.” What is correct depends on how that sentence would be completed to give the intended meaning. “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than I (am)” indicates regretting poor manners. If it should be expanded as “I get a little jealous that Bill is more courteous to Susan than (he is to) I” the “I” should clearly be “me.” In either case, the meaning should be clarified.

 

The above having been said, there are times when a writer can legitimately use grammatically incorrect pronouns. Using the objective as subjective can indicate a lack of education or intellect; alternatively, it can signal a child speaker. For example, “Joe and me went fishing.”

 

Using the subjective as objective can indicate someone striving for elegance, to give the impression of refinement. “The countess was excessively kind to my sister and I.”

 

Technically, the pronoun after is, are, was, or were should be I, he, she, we, or they. “May I speak to Ms. Lawry?” “This is she.”  equals a grammatically correct exchange. If you want to convey formality—or perhaps superciliousness, stuffiness, or age—use this formal construction. However, if you intend a conversational exchange or a casual tone, rephrase.

 

TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS: Know the rules of grammar so you can use them or abuse them to suit your purposes!
 
writers harbrace handbook cheryl glenn loretta gray

Use Slang and Clichés Effectively

see you later alligator
In my opinion, the best use of slang is setting the time of the story. Using any of the above farewells screams the 1950s. “Gag me with a spoon” is soooo 1980s.

 

Slang has always been with us, evolving from docks, gutters, gambling dens, and society soirees. It changes with the times. That is its strength and its weakness. Used effectively, it lends authenticity to dialogue. But if writing about any time other than the present, tread carefully. Inappropriate slang can ruin the tone and undermine the credibility of the entire story.
dewdroppers waldos slackers rosemarie ostler
As with so many things, there are books for that! When writing “historical” fiction in any genre, books such as this should rest alongside a good dictionary and a convenient thesaurus.

 

A seldom recognized use for really old slang: when used judiciously, it can add freshness to writing.
The Vulgar Tongue Francis Grose
When the meaning is clear but the phrase isn’t current, it can sound creative. E.g., cow-handed to mean awkward, brazen faced to mean impudent or shameless, sugar stick to mean a penis.

 

When not to avoid clichés: when adding authenticity to dialogue. Some say you should avoid clichés like the plague, but at the end of the day, using them is as American as apple pie. Why reinvent the wheel when there are so many kick-ass expressions already out there? Don’t overdo it, but recognize that people really do say things like, “I’m wound tight as an eight-day clock” or “nutty as a fruitcake” or “Keep a stiff upper lip.” Sometimes a repeated cliché can be an effective speech tag for a specific character.

 

Last but not least, browsing a good book of clichés can be informative. Kick the bucket has meant to die since at least 1785!  And keep your shirt on, meaning to stay calm, predates 1854. On the other hand, kick up your heels, meaning show spirit or having a great time, is a far cry from 1500, when it meant to die. So, one more for the reference shelf!

 

use slang cliches effectively dictionary cliches james rogers

Characterizing Characters

characterizing characters building believable characters
This is a great book—especially for the the obsessive and/or anxious writer. It has a 14-page questionnaire intended to help you to really understand your character, so thoroughly that you just know how s/he would behave in any given scene. Then there are chapters on everything from Face and Body to names from around the world.

 

So why not just stop with an endorsement? What more is there to say? Just a few things about making characters vivid and memorable.

 

Actually, I can’t quite imagine eyes like butterflies. Nevertheless, this book highlights two methods of ramping up characterizations: similes and metaphors. Essentially, saying a character is like something, it’s a simile. E.g., “Her smile was like sunshine.” Saying a character is/was something is a metaphor. “He was a rock when Mother died.” As in all writing, avoid the clichés. “She is a diamond in the rough” is a tired example.
 
So where does one look for fresh ideas? Consciously visualizing a character in non-human terms might help. 
 
What animal would X be? Consider the differing implications of spider, rat, rabbit, toy poodle, wren, cow, mule, pig, chicken, etc., etc., etc. Various animals are associated with specific personalities and actions, and labeling a character that way can convey a lot of meaning. Think lap dog.

 

What is X’s astrological sign? Whether one believes in astrology or not, various signs carry lots of implications. The title Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus works on many levels: Mars is the god of war, Venus is the goddess of love, and the planets are millions of miles apart. The Chinese sign one was born under has similar implications. I was born in the year of the Cock, and apart from the personality implications, this should be a very good year for me!
characterizing characters book stones
What stone would X be? Again, some stones carry a lot of weight already. For example, diamonds are hard, bright, glittery, and expensive. What characteristics do you associate with pearls, emeralds, jasper, agate? What about abalone? Quartz? Cubic zirconia? And what about metals? Is X gold, silver, platinum, aluminum, iron, brass, bronze—or maybe mixed metals?

 

What plant would X be? What are the associations with oak tree vs. lily? Rose vs. dandelion? Wheat vs. redwood? I won’t belabor the point. You get the idea.

 

Bottom line: Characterize characters in unexpected ways. You could come up with this sort of writing.

 

attributing words characters

Resource for Writers

poets and writers issues
If you read only one magazine for writers, make it Poets & Writers. This is a bi-monthly publication that covers the waterfront for writers. Regardless of your genre, reason for writing, or skill level, there’s something here for you.

 

In the last six issues, topics covered include articles on literary agents and the business of writing; hot new writers; MFA programs; writing contests; and a personal favorite of mine, from last Sept/Oct issue, “Big Ideas for the Next President.”

 

dear president
Although there is a clear recognition of young emerging writers, P&W also carried a piece about 5 debut authors over 50—which is very comforting and inspirational for those of us who think we might have started too late.

poets writers inspiration

As you can see from this Jan/Feb 2017 cover, topics for each issue range broadly, from learning from rejection to writing about trauma. The next issue featured George Saunders, known for his short stories, who has written a debut novel; also included are articles on writing getaways and retreats and savvy self-publishing.

 

poets and writers winning contests
The most recent issue again dips into current events, with its article on the NEA at risk/the arts funding under Trump.

 

I cannot endorse Poets & Writers too strongly. At least get a trial subscription.

 

P.S. Every issue includes writing prompts!

 

the time is now

Dulcimer Lesson for Writers

dulcimer lesson writers
In high school I played percussion, but I never mastered a tuneful instrument–which I’ve always regretted. So, I recently started taking dulcimer lessons. The instrument and the music are rooted in Appalachia, as am I. In short, it’s important to me.

But so far, I’ve managed only one lesson and one practice per week– usually the morning of the lesson. This is not the road to proficiency!

clock face
I truly intend to practice, but there’s always something else to do first. Make the bed. Empty the dishwasher. Celebrate my birthday with my bridge buds.

washing dishes
Write my twice-weekly blogs. Submit a short story. Come up with and deliver a couple of tattoo stories to honor Amy Black. Spend Easter with my family in New England. And on and on.

AND THAT BRINGS ME TO FIRST THINGS VS. IMPORTANT THINGS.

It’s easy to fill your life with things that are right in front of you–or that have a date certain–and never get around to some things that are truly more important.

kids room
When my children were little I often lamented the clutter and mess in my house. (I was a psychology professor at the time.) One day a friend with four children just older than mine said, “If they aren’t doing structural damage, don’t worry about it.”

Which brings us to the point: LOOK AT HOW YOU SPEND YOUR TIME AND DECIDE WHICH FIRST THINGS CAN BE MOVED TO LAST. If writing is truly important to you, make time for it.

And so, off to practice dulcimer!


Interested in learning more about writing? Join me at Agile Writers for my class on Write Your Life: Memoir and Memoir-Based Fiction. For more information, visit the Agile Writers website.

Vivian Lawry Agile Writers

Antoinette O’Malley? Really?

And never an explanation or even a mention of the jarring juxtaposition of ethnic heritages. Perhaps it is time to revisit issues around character naming.

I wrote a blog post in October 2015 about character naming. Let’s review:

What’s in a name? Perhaps a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet.

Consider your name.

How was it chosen? What does it mean? How does it look? How do you feel about it?

My father John shared his name with a brother of his mother. My mother’s, Alta Wavalene, came from her father’s youngest sister and her mother’s youngest sister. There are no Vivians on either branch of the family tree. Were my parents consciously striking out in a different direction?

One story I heard growing up is that Vivian was the name of my father’s first girlfriend, and he liked it. So, does this reflect my father’s dominance or my mother’s confidence?

Vivian means lively, and likes bright or vivid colors. The latter definitely applies, and I like to think the former does as well. As for appearance, Vivian is all spikes and angles, especially when written in caps: VIVIAN. Hmmmm. No comment. But I do know I felt out-of-place among the Sharons and Shirleys and Barbaras. As a child, I wanted a nickname and it was never forthcoming. As an adult, I like that I have seldom come across another Vivian, and only an Italian chef ever called me Vi.

Consider character names.

Your characters’ names are as important to them as yours is to you. Give them some thought. As with everything, there are books out there to help. My personal favorite is Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon. For one thing, it starts with an overview of things to consider. In brief, and paraphrased, the ten guidelines are:

  1. Capture the persona
  2. Consider heritage, personality, and trade/profession
  3. Make the name harmonious
  4. Choose names consistent with time period (The Social Security Administration is good for US names)
  5. Consider the character’s social status
  6. Use nicknames
  7. Vary the names of characters
  8. Be aware of your genre
  9. If you choose a name that breaks the rules, make a point of it
  10. Avoid names that others have made famous

Your character’s name is the usual introduction to the reader. Lydia is harder than Nora. Cynthia is more upscale than Bertha. Bart is stronger than most two-syllable male names.

In deciding on names, avoid not only the beginnings, but the endings. Alex, Alice, Amy, and Andrew will confuse readers and turn them off. At the same time, choose nicknames and/or endearments with care. I recently critiqued a manuscript in which William was Billy to the family, Victoria was Vickie,
Margaret was Maggie, Susan was Suzie, and endearments were honey and sweetie. Not a big deal, but if the reader notices, it’s too much.

I like Character Naming because of its breadth, and because it separates names by ethnic roots and meaning. But it isn’t the only book out there. Indeed, you can go to a local telephone directory and mix first and last names.

book covers of Character Naming by Sherrilyn Kenyon and The Secret Universe of Name by Roy Feinson
Character Naming and The Secret Universe of Names

And if you are interested in the humorous side of writing, consider these:

book covers of The Terrible Meaning of Names by Justin Cord Hayes and Don't Name Your Baby by David Narter
The Terrible Meaning of Names and Don’t Name Your Baby

That way you won’t inadvertently name two friends Barbara Smith and Barbara Morton and end up with BS and BM!

character names Book covers of four books on baby names you can use as character names
More books on baby names

Consider perception.

Consider the article “13 Surprising Ways Your Name Affects Your Success” by Maggie Zhang and Jenna Goudreau.  The main points of their article are highly relevant to writers. If your name is easy to pronounce, people will favor you more. If your name is common, you are more likely to be hired. If your name is uncommon, you are more likely to be a delinquent. If you have a white-sounding name, you’re more likely to get hired. If your name is closer to the beginning of the alphabet, you might get into a better school. If your last name is closer to the end of the alphabet, you’re more likely to be an impulse spender. You are more likely to work in a company that matches your initials. Using your middle initial makes people think you’re smarter and more competent. If your name sounds noble, you are more likely to work in a high-ranking position. If you are a boy with a girl’s name, you are more likely to be suspended from school. If you are a woman with a sexually ambiguous name, you are more likely to succeed. Men with shorter first names are overrepresented in the c-suite. Women at the top are more likely to use their full names (e.g., Deborah, Cynthia).
And one final point for authors: Think carefully before giving your main characters long or hyphenated names. You are going to be typing those names a gazillion times!

What are your favorite character names?


Interested in learning more about writing? Join me at Agile Writers for my class on Write Your Life: Memoir and Memoir-Based Fiction. For more information, visit the Agile Writers website.
Vivian Lawry Agile Writers

Writing that Irritates Readers

I recently wrote a blog on CUT THE FLAB and since then, I’ve been noting the various and sundry ways writers irritate readers—or perhaps I should say, this reader.

 

Going off-key on tone. This is when something just doesn’t feel right. It is especially likely when reading something supposedly set in an early time which contains language that is too modern. For example, a story is set in 1812 that contains references to teenagers and babysitting. It’s also common when using slang that is inappropriate to the time of the story or the age of the character: totally awesome, gag me with a spoon, and grody to the max scream the 1980s. An important part of tone is choosing the right form of a word—as in spittle if you want it to seem older, spit if you want it to be more modern.

 

writing irritates readers
Close but no cigar: Using the wrong word. Fiancé (masculine) versus fiancée (feminine). Blond (masculine) versus blonde (feminine)—although recently there is a trend toward going with blond for both. That/who: Use who for humans. “The man that walked in” is totally wrong. That should be for objects or animals, as in “The cat that ate the cream.” And/but: and connects two things that are in the same vein while but signals a turn. “She stifled a grin and spoke sympathetically” gives a different impression from “She spoke sympathetically but stifled a grin.” The former sounds sympathetic, the latter hypocritical.

 

Who/whom: whom always needs to be preceded by a preposition, such as by, for, of, to, etc. Who is without a preposition. So, “The man who came to dinner,” but “For whom the bell tolls.” Imply/infer: a speaker implies something but it’s the listener or observer who infers. Sit/set: a person, animal, or object sits in a resting position; sets is the act of putting something in that position. She sets the vase on the table and then it just sits there. What/which: “That what he would not dare” is wrong.

 

writing irritates readers
Redundant verbiage: I talked about this in the blog on flab, but here are some recent versions. Minutes/seconds don’t need modifiers: A brief second or a long minute are no-no’s. Expansive in the large magnitude. I resumed the previous ideas that…  I wanted to stomp the floor with my foot.

 

This sort of irritation can do much to undermine what is basically a good storyline or plot. On the other hand: This is Act Happy Week, so maybe it’s time to put irritation aside!

Cut the Flab

Earlier this week a writing friend of mine, Fiona Quinn, invited people on Facebook to share their pet peeves. I shared two, one of which was characters who nod their heads. Perhaps I lack imagination, but I can’t think what else a person might nod. Shaking one’s head is a completely different matter, for all sorts of things—some of them body parts—can be shaken.

 

Which brings me to today’s blog. I get really annoyed with flabby writing—writing that includes unnecessary words or phrases. I’ll talk about four common types of flab: stating something for which there is no alternative, saying the same thing twice, naming characters or relationships already known, and stating an action that is inherent in another action.

 

Stating something for which there is no alternative. A character nodding his head is one of these. Here’s more flab.

 

cut flab edit
She rose to her feet. She stood up. She sat down. A bouquet of flowers he had gathered himself, by hand. He thought to himself. Who else could he think to? The usual or inevitable need not be stated, only the exceptions.  For example, if she stood aside it isn’t redundant.

 

 Writing redundantly. In such a short span of time. At this point in time. He hesitated for a quick minute. With sudden haste. She quickly tore open the letter. Bickering back and forth. Opening a letter, “Now I shall see what my father thinks in his letter.”

 

Naming characters or relationships known to the characters and the readers. “The toll taken on him, her father, a man who…”  “Your invitation to my sister, Kitty…”  “Boasted to Mrs. Johnson, your mother…”  “Turned to her husband, David…”

 

Writing an action that is inherent in another action. “He stood and walked to the door.” Can one walk to a door without standing? “She started the car and drove away.” “He took the pot from the stove and served the potatoes.”

 

And then there is writing that just makes no sense. He inwardly exhaled?

 

cut flab scissors
[Source: openclipart (Public Domain)]
The bottom line: All sorts of unnecessary words and actions slip into writing, especially first drafts. Cut them mercilessly. One good exercise is to try to shorten every paragraph by a line, or every sentence by a word. He rushed to the door is much stronger than he walked quickly to the door—and it’s more concise.