The Book/Marathon Connection

The cliché “writing a book is like running a marathon” has, like all other clichés, that kernel of truth that gets worn out from overuse. But the kernel remains true.

Young man running with computer
Photo by Photostock, via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I got to thinking about this because, while I work on draft #4 of Wild Spread, I’m also getting ready for my 19th consecutive year of volunteering with the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. There are many parallels between writing the book and my volunteer work—which I do to honor the memory of a friend who was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building—the first being that they’re both important to me. I’ve also completed one half-marathon and two books, so I can speak with at least some knowledge of running and writing.

The other parallels between writing and marathoning include:

  • They require persistence. This is the obvious one. Both require continuous, steady exertion and development in order to complete the task. Runners and writers both build endurance and confidence over time, and both must learn a lot along the way, about themselves and what it takes to achieve their goal.

To read the rest of the post, please click here.

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Adverbs: Less Is More

It’s common advice in writers’ workshops that adverbs should be replaced with active verbs whenever possible, and that you shouldn’t use too many adverbs.  But how many adverbs is too many?  I decided to find out.

My Methodology

I went to three respected literary magazines and randomly selected the following three stories:

Bogdonoff, Nathan. ”Indoor Animals.” New England Review, Vol. 39, No. 4 (2018).

Li, Yiyun. “All Will Be Well.” New Yorker. 11 March 2019. 

Roth, Philip.  “Goodbye Columbus.” Paris Review, Issue 20, Autumn-Winter 1958-1959.

I copied and pasted the stories into Word, searched for “ly” and highlighted the adverbs in blue.  Then I copied the phrases or sentences in which they appeared into a separate document, and counted the number of occurrences (no, I am not always this OCD).

Then I averaged the three to find a good target number (okay, maybe I am always this OCD).  In all three instances, the number of adverbs represented less than 1% of the total number of words in the story.

What I Learned

Adverbs should represent less than 1% of your total word count.

When you do use an adverb, it should be to describe an action for which there is not a better verb.  Examples:

  • “I never called ahead, and rarely had to wait” – we don’t have a verb that expresses waiting as a rare occurrence.
  • “I may say it a bit too ringingly, too fast, too up-in-the-air, but I say it” – again, there’s no particular verb to express this particular style of speaking
  • “The fawn is peeing, steadily and unabashedly, all over the floor.” – I don’t mean to be gross, but we don’t have a polite verb for sustained or shame-free urination.

Sometimes, adverbs are used deliberately for effect:

  • “these were my most tiresome traits, and I used them tirelessly”
  • “They looked like two lambs, impeccably prepared by their elders as sacrifices to appease a beast or a god.”

Sometimes it seems to be about characterization or voice:

  • “She dove beautifully”
  • “The darker it got the more savagely did Brenda rush the net”
  • “I wasn’t entirely free from the demands of stating my opinions”

Adverbs also appear to be commonly used to express time:

  • rarely
  • finally
  • suddenly (which should be used sparingly, BTW)
  • recently, etc.

Click here to see the data set.

TFOB 2012

Well, another Tucson Festival is in the books, you should pardon the pun.  I’ll bet everyone who went can feel a few muscles–walking muscles, stair-climbing muscles, book-toting muscles, and writing muscles.

I didn’t take a lot of notes this year but would like to share a few points I found worth jotting down.

T. C. Boyle, novel and short story writer:

  • Take an ordinary event, such as a man not wanting to go to work, and see how you can up the stakes, push it over the top.

Sy Montgomery, author of The Good Good Pig:

  • When you can’t believe in yourself, you can believe in your animals.
  • When the student is ready, the teacher appears.  Sometimes it’s an animal.
  • If you’re writing about animals, ask why you were attracted animals in the first place.  What do you get out of your relationships with animals?

Ilie Ruby, Naomi Benaron, & Sarah McCoy – panel discussion, Capturing a Sense of Place in Fiction:

  • Capture the moment when everything changes for good or ill.
  • History and myth can add depth to a setting.  Show what it has come to mean in people’s minds.
  • Capture the voice that makes you want to write.  Then just write the story.

William Pitt Root, poet and teacher:

  • What do you need to be in touch with in order to write well?

Richard Russo, Margaret Coel, & Louis Bayard – panel discussion on Edgar Allan Poe:

  • Remember to get to the interior life of all your characters.  Villains are people.  They have mothers, too.
  • Everything a character experiences in a story prepares him/her to face himself/herself and  the external challenge at the story’s climax.
  • Read “up”–that is, read work that is better than yours is at the moment.  Read like a writer.  See how good writers achieve the effects that make their work excellent.

Alison Hawthorne Deming, Heid Erdrich, Ofelia Zepeda – Layers of Knowing – poetry reading & discussion:

  • Efforts are being made to save indigenous languages that may contain ways of knowing that we need for survival.
  • Arts improve empathy between individuals and between people of different generations.

Pam Houston, writer of fictionalized memoir (I’d recommend Sight Hound)

  • Looking for something to write about?  Feel around for your own emotional bruises and press on them.
  • Shine the light as strongly on yourself as you do on others.

Hope there’s something useful in this potpourri of ideas.

Fiction: Episode or Story, Part 1

I was looking through my short fiction for a piece to submit to a competition when I came across two personal experience stories. I’d sent each of them out to several literary journals over the years, where they were rejected for publication or failed to win, place, or show in competitions. I had revised each piece when it was rejected, thinking that the voice, style, opening, or some other technical aspect might be at fault.

Did revision improve the stories? Yes. The writing become tighter, more focused, and richer in sensory details.

Did that get them published? Nope, and I know why: I wasn’t addressing the underlying problem. These were episodes, not stories in which the main character struggles to resolve one or more problems. I had simply retold, in as literary a way as I could, events from my life.

One was a funny (in retrospect) episode on an airplane sitting at the gate at Albuquerque, its takeoff delayed by fog in Phoenix (yup, Phoenix), and how the flight attendants got a crazed passenger to leave of his own accord. The other revolved around the parallel scars on my father’s forehead, the result of his weekend-warrioring with the weeds between our garage and our neighbors’.

Fun to tell to fellow writers over dinner after a meeting, but not stories.

Okay, that’s the first question: Is your piece a story, or is it episodic? The way to evaluate that is to determine whether or not it has the elements of a story. Is there is a main character with a thwarted desire who must struggle against increasing odds and who may or may not win. Is there something at stake? If so, you may have a story.

I’ll leave you to assess your own work and post more on this issue soon.

 

Going to a Writers’ Conference? Be Prepared!

I just love spring in Arizona, don’t you–especially that six-week period in March and April when I want to dig a pit, line it with cinder blocks, roof it with steel, and not come out until the battering wind stops.

High-positive-ion wind messes with people’s neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that affect emotions. More serotonin and less norepinephrine is a formula for irritability and depression in a lot of people. The wind even inhibits thyroid function. That’s why I own an air cleaner with a negative-ion generator.

(Digression: Writing about what you know about is good. Writing about what you want to know and have to research makes you stretch.)

Still, I do love spring in Arizona. Why? Because three of my favorite writing events take place in that season:

(Digression: Okay, you can argue that Pima takes place in the summer. Any season in which you have to turn on your car’s air conditioner at eight in the morning is summer. Humor me anyway.)

Having listed these upcoming delights–and having read a couple of newsletter and blog pieces about writers’ conferences–I want to pass along two doable, down-to-earth logistical tips that have helped me get the most out of my time at these events.

Take food and water. At the very least, it gives you options for getting enough glucose to your brain cells in case the caterer’s truck breaks down, a fuse blows in the hotel restaurant, or the incoming water pipe is breached by a backhoe driver digging to install cable. This is especially important if you need to regulate your blood sugar more frequently than coffee and meal breaks allow, are on a tight budget, and/or have food sensitivities or other considerations.

For instance, the Creative Writing Celebration provides a catered lunch the first day. It’s beautiful, it’s healthy, and there’s rarely anything on the serving table that doesn’t contain meat, wheat, milk, sugar, and/or chocolate. So I brownbag it.

Dress/take clothes for any conditions from Siberian auditoriums to Saharan hotel meeting rooms. Shivering and sweating can distract you from participating fully, keep you from learning what you came to learn, and cause you to miss the serendipity that, frankly, is my biggest motivation for going to conferences.

Air handling systems are idiosyncratic, perverse, and sometimes downright malicious. Their quirks are poorly understood by the people who design and install them, never mind those who have to run them. Dress in layers and carry a jacket. I don’t go as far as packing sandals and mukluks, though it’s crossed my mind.

Ross reminded me to add:  wear shoes that are comfortable to walk in.  Venues at some events are spread out, especially Tucson Festival of Books.  Blisters are not conducive to fun and learning.

You can’t plan for every eventuality, but if chance favors the prepared, a little preparation can increase the likelihood that you’ll have a good time and get all the conference has to offer.

The Poetics of Place

Tucson Festival of Books is coming up in a little over a month. If you’ve never attended this readers’ and writers’ extravaganza, I urge you to dedicate at least one day to it. (More information at the bottom of this post.)

I like to prime myself for events like this by reading my notes from the previous year’s presentations. It puts me in a writerly frame of mind and primes my synapses.

Last year a wonderful novelist and children’s book author named Ilie Ruby came from back east to give a workshop called The Poetics of Place. While it was aimed at fiction, what she taught is useful in any kind of writing where setting is important–in other words, almost everything we write other than grocery and honey-do lists.

Here’s the exercise Ilie gave the forty or so people who attended her workshop.

Step 1 – Close your eyes. Imagine something happened in a real or made-up place. Look for sensory connections to other experiences, real or imagined. Pay particular attention to the tug of place in your thoughts and emotions.

Step 2 – Set a timer for ten minutes and do a free write, using your memory or imagination of that place. Describe it after something unpleasant or upsetting has happened. Keep writing; don’t let your pen stop. Doing it by hand gives you an organic, sensory advantage.

Step 3 – Set the timer again and describe the same place after something wonderful has happened. Compare your two descriptions.

Here’s what I wrote for Step 2: Her father had slammed his way out the back door, rattling the windows. He had slammed the wooden gate and then come back to latch it in that resigned way he had. The girl had retreated to her bedroom, climbed onto the quilt, and hugged her stuffed horse. Maybe she had slept. When she became aware again, the house was silent in that underwater way it was when the fog came in off the bay and climbed the hills. She lay still, cheek pressed against the horse’s dingy pink hide, and one breath told her that things had changed. That invisible thing her mother called mold had awakened and crept up her nostrils to inform her.

I was writing toward her discovery that the house is full of fog. This actually happened in the Berkeley Hills in California I was three or four years old, and my mother, brother, and I had taken a nap and left the bay-facing windows open.

We had less time to finish the second exercise, where something wonderful has just happened: How had she not known how much she loved this house, this wooden womb, this only place she had lived since her mother’s body? Had she, in her nearly six years, never noticed the bright trails of slugs across the fallen bay tree leaves, the smells of dust and wet decay that excited her nose, the patterns of light wedging itself between the leaves of the canopy?

The point of this exercise is to develop the habit of noticing sensory details of setting and how they relate to a character’s emotions. Give it a try and see what your imagination serves up.

Dates for the 2012 Tucson Festival of Books are Saturday, March 10, and Sunday, March 11, at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Information is available at http://www.tucsonfestivalofbooks.org. From the website you can get on their e-mailing list. There are a raft of panel discussions and individual presentations, not to mention a wide variety of foods. (Lines are sometimes long, so it doesn’t hurt to bring something to keep your blood sugar up.) Hope to see you there, or at least pass you in the crowd.

Announcement – Correction – Again!

The Cochise Community Creative Writing Celebration is sponsoring two open-mic readings in conjunction with the Celebration:

  • Saturday, January 14, 2-4 PM, at the Oliver House, 24 Sowles Avenue, Old Bisbee
  • Saturday, January 28, 2-4 PM, at the Sierra Vista Public Library, Mona Bishop Room, 2600 East Tacoma.
Everyone is welcome.  Admission is free, and refreshments will be served.  Bring poetry and prose to read!

The Creative Writing Celebration will be held on Friday, March 30, at the Ethel Berger Center, and Saturday, March 31, 2012, at Sierra Vista Campus of Cochise College.

Deadline for the writing competitions associated with the Celebration is February 24.

For more information about the Celebration, check out the Cochise College website.