In Which I Hire a Writing Coach for a Day

Not that long after I began this blog, I put out a call for potential guest posters.  I didn’t want to just listen to my own ramblings every week, but welcomed the idea of other voices bringing their unique perspectives.  Responding to my query this week is EJ Runyon, author of the short story collection Claiming One and the writing guide Tell Me (How to Write) a Story, both from Inspired Quill (UK).  She coaches, edits, and runs the creative writing website Bridge to Story.  Her next book, a novel, is due out in October 2014 and her Revision for Beginners is due in 2015.

I told EJ that she could talk about whatever she wished, and she rather surprised me by asking me to come up with some questions about my craft.  Upon giving thought to the difficulties I experienced or anticipated with my novel during last year’s NaNoWriMo, that wasn’t too difficult.

So here she is…

* * * * *

Thanks for the guest blog post, Lucie.  I’m at your command.  What do you want to ask your Writing Coach for a Day?

Well, for starters, EJ, how does an author endow a work with a strong sense of place?  That’s one of my top concerns…

Thinking of “places” in our minds, we rarely stop to describe them to ourselves; instead, we seem to feel or experience them fully-formed in our minds.  Try to do that for your reader.  Give them less explanation or description and more senses.  Think of physical, visual, visceral.  Let your characters – or for memoir, your past self – feel the touch of a season on skin or face.  Let them recoil at the sudden sounds of stepping into a noisy diner, or lack of noise the stacks at a college library brings to their ears.  Have them experience the smell of liquor when a bottle gets uncorked, the whiff of ammonia while changing a baby’s diaper that causes them to pull their face away.

Follow those senses with reactions, movements within your story that are driven by “place”; don’t move your characters around just to have them do something.

Did you notice the verbs I used in showing you this?  Feel, recoil, stepping, brings, uncorked, pull.  Those are all action verbs.  We didn’t see: is, am, are, was, were, had, which, as, or could here.  That’s the first step for a strong sense of place in your writing.

Looking at this from another side, EJ…is a strong sense of place and time even necessary for a work of fiction?  For example, some of Madeleine L’Engle’s most well-known young adult novels are notably lacking in any cultural references such as TV, movies, books, etc. that would indicate in what time frame they’re set, although physical locations are made clear…

I wonder if cultural references such as TV, songs, or movies aren’t a lesser, easier way of novices attempting to evoke place.  Perhaps studying some alternate ways, in second and later drafts, is required.  Sure, get your words down any way you need to in a first draft.  But…

You noticed how a master author like L’Engle didn’t rely on temporal cultural references from her time.  This is why something published in 1962 can still be read with enjoyment today.  I do believe that a strong sense of place and time is necessary.  I just don’t conflate using topical cultural references with that.

Another thing I’ve wondered is if a work can be “too cerebral”…contain too much dialogue, too much inner thought vs. physical action.  I’ve seen at least one novel [Anita Brookner’s “Strangers”] that pulled off this format so superbly I never really missed a strong sense of location or physical action, but I suspect it’s rather rare…

It’s what you do with your words that make a story work.  There can rarely be too much of any story element if you’re using that element to the best.  Dialogue needs to seem believable and not feed the reader story facts through needless exposition.

Characters can be alive with their frailties and truths.  Settings require that they serve the story, not just say where someone is at any moment.  Narration can be cerebral, but it shouldn’t be obtrusive.  Let your writer’s voice fade as your telling becomes showing.  That doesn’t mean spelling out every bit of the action, or every thought at length – something novices don’t always realize at first.

Well, while we’re on the subject of character voice…how can an author believably write from the point of view of the opposite sex?  I mean, two of my novel characters are teenage boys…something I’ve obviously never been…

Study that opposition.  Note differences and practice writing them in your head.  Do you know about the way men talk compared to how women do?  Men sometimes use fewer words than women to express themselves.  They use fewer pronouns.  A woman might say:  “I like that shirt on you.  That’s a good color for your eyes,” whereas a man might say, “Nice shirt.  That color works well.”

A blog post of mine explains this more fully: (http://ejrunyon.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/your-own-editing-kit-thanks-kate/).

I guess you could say this is sort of on the same subject…how can an author really “get inside a character’s head”…

I think this solution is two-fold.  First, you’ll need to exercise some empathy, which should include all the weaker points of a character as well as their strengths.  You know all your own secrets and failures and prideful moments and wants.  All those aspects of your character should be pondered, too.  Second (especially if you’re writing something that is memoir-based), rather than “writing what you know,” try “using what you know” in your story.  Again, here are two blog posts on that topic:  http://ejrunyon.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/writing-what-you-know-vs-using-what-you-know-in-you-writing/ and http://ejrunyon.wordpress.com/tag/characters-in-action/.

* * * * *

EJ gave me some things to think about.  How about you?  If you’re a writer, what kinds of issues do you struggle with in the effort to bring your characters and their world alive for your readers?  I’d love to hear your experiences.

Next week is Book Review Monday on the blog, and I’ll be taking a look at the most recent offering from Joni Eareckson Tada and her husband, Ken, who describe in long-awaited detail some of the struggles they’ve faced with her nearly lifelong quadriplegia as well as fame, in just over three decades of marriage…and how faith continues to steer their commitment.  I hope you’ll join me!

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2 thoughts on “In Which I Hire a Writing Coach for a Day

  1. Pingback: Establish Your Setting - The Memoir Network

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