Just Like Me, They Long to Read, Close to You…

Bindweed flowerA book is like a hyper-convenient version of Pandora’s box – it can spawn a plethora of different things, but it’s up to us which one will come out. We can read for work or for school. We can read to form an opinion on a controversial book, or to examine the politics at play in a popular series. We can read just for the simple pleasure of words on a page.

Just as there are different purposes for reading, there are different levels of reading. Most frequently, we read a work in its entirety, and we read it on a surface level. A detail here or there might slip past us, but we grasp the overall point and meaning of the book. Even the most serious scholars will approach a book in this way at first.

However, you don’t have to come up with an opinion and move on once you’ve given a book a read-through like this. In fact, you shouldn’t move on if you really want to learn from it. Instead, you should pick an interesting passage or two and subject them to a good, old-fashioned close reading.

In a formal academic setting, a ‘close reading’ is a short essay (of 500 to 1,000 words at my alma mater) written on a sentence or two in a novel. I want to be a nice creative person and say “but you can choose your own method,” but no – at first, you’ll need that goal of 500 words to get you really thinking about the short (no more than 55 words!) passage you’ve chosen. Do it right, and you’ll think you’ve gone crazy: you’ll be going to seemingly absurd lengths to find some additional meaning hidden in a little grammar quirk. You’ll be looking up words in dictionaries, you’ll be thinking about section structures, and you might even be looking up the current academic discourse of the book.

This madness is exactly the point of close reading. It forces you to grasp at straws, to look for different interpretations, and to think of strategies a writer may have been using to make a point. That process will help you understand literature, it will help you develop your own strategies for making points, and it will help you develop a new level of understanding for the books you read.


On the Virtues of Beautiful Places

A carpet of narcissi & tulipsI hope you will not mistake me for one of those people who feels that it’s always necessary to surround yourself with beauty and inspiration if you want to produce a high-quality work. I’ve composed poetry in front of an industrial sink and written novels in crowded airports. However, I’ll readily admit that going or being someplace beautiful – or better yet, making someplace beautiful – is a good idea if you like to devote yourself to creative endeavors.

The most important thing about beautiful places is that they encourage us to relax, to let our minds wander, and to forget about the things we’re worrying about. We all need to do this, especially when we’re trying to compose a piece of writing. Drafting a story or novel is a stressful, tiring task, and there’s a lot to be said for going on a break now and then and taking a walk in a nearby park. Taking some time to briefly distance yourself from your work – even if you only go upstairs to make some coffee – is a good way to relax, refresh, and reorganize before delving back into it.

Just as they help us distract ourselves when we need it, beautiful places can also help us focus on our own sense of what is beautiful. This is a very important understanding for a writer to have, as it will guide many of your creative choices and contribute to the higher themes of your narratives. I’ve always found it worthwhile to take a few moments and write about what makes your favorite place beautiful. Different people find beauty in different areas for different reasons, and the simple task of articulating these reasons can be a truly inspiring task.

Whether it’s the quiet of a mountainside or the cheerful bustle of a city park, almost all writers and artists find it helpful to spend some time in a beautiful place. You can use them to relax, to contemplate, or to find inspiration for your work – and they make bad places to sit down for a picnic, either.

How Does Your Inspiration Grow?

Irish fleabaneAny conversation about the art of writing will eventually turn to the topic of inspiration. Finding something compelling to write about can be almost as hard as writing about it compellingly. Many writers dread the day when they’ll wake up and find that they have nothing, nothing whatsoever to write about. Although this is a frightening fantasy, the reality is that inspiration doesn’t always have to occur spontaneously.

I like to think of inspiration as coming in two basic varieties. The kind we think about most frequently (and covet the most when we have it) is the kind that pops up on you when you’re thinking of something else. Many writers pick hobbies or activities that give them plenty of opportunities to be struck by this information; part of the reason I like to garden, for example, is because it gives me a chance to sit and think in a pretty place.

However, just because you can give yourself more chances at this kind of inspiration doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to come up with a good idea. If you want to count on getting an idea you can work with, you’ll need to put some work into your inspiration process. Compile a set of resources you can depend on to give you ideas (I use tumblr tags, searches on pinterest, and certain books in my library), and then use it. Write down ideas that appeal to you, and write down little bits of development until you have something you can start a story from. Develop a system that works for you, and stick as closely to it as you can. It’s not the most glamorous way of coming up with an idea, but it’s been a steadfast friend to me when life doesn’t sprout inspiration from its ears.

The quest for inspiration is one of the most romanticized and poorly understood parts of the writing profession. It is true that writers are occasionally randomly struck by inspiration that seems to grow wild. However, you’ll find yourself inspired more easily if you learn to use your resources to systematically find and develop your ideas.

Perfect Parallelisms

DC_0003In many ways, a sentence serves as a storage structure for information. A well-written sentence keeps information neatly organized so the reader can find it and use it with ease. Parallel structures are one of the most important tools for organizing information within a sentence. By learning how to manage these structures and how to spot a faulty one, you can make your writing tighter and organize your sentences better.

We most frequently use parallel structures to convey different pieces of information which share a common theme. For example, I might say that my morning chores include feeding the animals, gathering the eggs, watering the garden, and getting the mail. Each of the phrases in bold conveys a piece of information that falls under the umbrella of “morning tasks.” Accordingly, each phrase is structured almost identically.

It’s easy to slip up and write a faulty or a clumsy parallelism. If I were to say that my morning chores include feeding the animals, gathering the eggs, watering the garden, and a trip to the mailbox, then I would be using a faulty parallelism in the italicized phrase. Here, “a trip to the mailbox” is a nominal phrase which springs up like a weed in an orderly patch of verb phrases. This faulty parallelism makes the sentence awkward, jars the reader, and detracts from the flow of the prose.

Whenever you see a group of phrases or clauses which all fall under the ‘umbrella’ of another clause, you should make sure that each member is structured similarly. Well-crafted parallelisms are a key feature of clear, tight writing which leads the reader through all of your important information. They make your writing “user-friendly,” and they add elegance as well as clarity to your prose.

Getting in the Write Place

Pellet stoveWhen I was younger, I could and would write anywhere – much to the chagrin of my schoolteachers and well-meaning relatives. As long as I had my notebook and a working pen, I found that I could drown out the world around me and get lost in whatever story I was working on at the time.

Although that skill hasn’t entirely disappeared over time, I do find myself somewhat more easily distracted these days. It’s one thing to sit down and get lost in a writing project when you’re a high school student with little else to do with your time, but it’s an entirely different game trying to focus on your writing when you’ve got a million other important projects to attend to. This is why I’ve found it helpful to set aside a space in my house where I work on my writing projects and nothing else – no housework, no paperwork,  and certainly no socializing.

I jokingly (and sometimes not-so-jokingly) refer to this space in my basement as my ‘dungeon,’ but in truth I find it rather freeing to sit myself down in a place I’ve come to associate with focusing on my work. It functions not only as my office, but also as my escape from the numerous distracting little tasks that can pull me away from a project and keep me mired indefinitely while I finish ‘one more chore.’ It helps me take my projects seriously, give them the full attention they deserve, and maintain the job/life balance that can be so hard to keep when you work from home.

Of course, I haven’t always been able to dedicate a space entirely to writing, and I know that it’s not an option for many people. You don’t have to have a dedicated office set up in order to give yourself a space where you write. What matters is that you assign something – be it a spot on the couch, an hour or three after work, or a seat at the library – to the task of writing, and that you stick with that assignment. You’ll be amazed at how quickly your projects grow once you give them some space of their own.

Helping Your Sentences Stand Up for Themselves

Walnuts as pickedThere are two types of clauses that we use to build sentences in English. There are independent clauses, which contain a complete statement of subject, verb, and object; and there are dependent clauses, which contain an incomplete statement. The basic test for an independent vs. dependent clause is to ask yourself if the clause would make sense as a sentence. If it would, it’s independent.

A good writer knows which information should go in an independent clause and which information should go in a dependent clause. Because independent clauses are the core of your sentence, you generally want to use them to convey the most important information in that sentence. This will draw the readers’ focus and help them understand your writing.

Dependent clauses, which ‘borrow’ parts of their logic from the independent clause that governs them, should generally contain secondary information. For instance, look at the sentence, “The carriage rattled over the bridge, spraying melting snow behind it.” The independent clause carries the main image that the reader gets from the sentence, while the dependent clause gives us some information about the scenery.

Writers should be careful with their dependent clauses, because too many of them in one sentence can overburden your writing and leave your reader lost in a sea of commas and modifiers. Everyone can benefit from taking a sample of their writing and highlighting the dependent and independent clauses in different colors. Ideally, you should see that independent clauses dominate your writing. If the reverse is true, go through your sentences and find places where you can convert a dependent clause to an independent clause.

Good, strong writing is easy to understand. It tells the readers what they need to know, and it conveys information in relatively short segments of language. Minding your dependent and independent clauses is an important part of strengthening your prose.

Adding Depth with Dialect

DCP_0165Although it’s possible to write in perfectly correct APA or MLA style, it’s difficult to define “correct use of English” on a broad scale. Due to regional and cultural variations in syntax, vocabulary, and pronunciation, what counts as correct English in one group may sound atrociously incorrect to another. These different variations of the English language are known as dialects, and learning to use them correctly is an important part of perfecting your fiction.

If you’re writing characters who come from a variety of social, cultural, or geographic backgrounds, then you should pay careful attention to how dialect shapes their speech. For instance, a character from a working class background is not likely to be a stickler about “who” and “whom,” while a college professor is more likely to use elegant speech in casual conversation. Using a variety of dialects adds depth and realism to your prose and helps your reader draw distinctions between characters.

Of course, it pays to use dialect carefully. Avoid annoying your reader by writing in such a strong dialect that your prose becomes incomprehensible; usually, a few of the most notable verbal tics are enough to give readers a good sense of your characters’ dialect. In addition, keep in mind that many dialects are an important part of contemporary cultures. Being respectful and doing your research is a good way to avoid crossing the line between colorful dialect and embarrassing stereotype.

Proper use of dialect is an important part of developing a complex, varied cast of characters for your prose. Although you shouldn’t use it to the point where it’s obnoxious, using a few variations on the English language can help your reader understand your characters and get engaged with your story.

Getting Started on Sonnets

Red rose clusterAlthough prose and poetry are two very different kinds of writing, becoming more proficient in one can help you become more proficient in the other. There are many ways for prose writers to improve their language skills by studying poetry. A good place to start this literary cross-training is the familiar form of the sonnet.

A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Modern poets have loosened this definition, but most beginners will find it easiest to stick with a more traditional version of the form. Traditional sonnets have a rhyme scheme which divides the poem into segments. An Elizabethan or Shakespearean sonnet follows an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme that divides the poem into three quatrains and a couplet; a Petrarchan sonnet, on the other hand, follows an ABBAABBA CDCDCD rhyme scheme which divides the poem into an octave and a sestet.

Even if you don’t have lofty ambitions for the sonnets you compose, writing them is an entertaining exercise that can truly test your abilities as a writer. The combined restraints of the rhyme scheme and the meter force you to choose your ideas and vocabulary very carefully. Many writers find that composing sonnets helps them learn to rearrange sentences in order to make their rhythm work better. This can not only make your ideas conform to the requirements of an Elizabethan or Petrarchan sonnet, but also help you get a sense of how your sentences’ cadence helps your reader understand your ideas.

Many prose writers like having the freedom to use whatever words and cadences they please. However, everybody can benefit from learning to work within the strict limits imposed by a traditional sonnet. Using sonnets as a writing exercise can help you improve your vocabulary, be more flexible with your sentence structure, and better understand the natural cadence of your writing.


Using the Subjunctive Mood Correctly (and Incorrectly)

DCP_0092One of the nice things about verbs is their flexibility. Different verb forms can convey a wealth of information about both the subject and object governed by the verb. Tenses, for example, give you a sense of when a verb is taking place, while moods give you a sense of whether the action is taking place on a literal or abstract level.

The simplest and most common verbal mood is the indicative mood. We use it to communicate that action is happening literally: the boy was jumping, and the man walks along the riverbank. The subjunctive mood, on the other hand, is used to discuss action that isn’t certain to happen. Sometimes, as in the phrase “if I were you,” we even use it to describe action that is almost certainly not going to happen. Subjunctive verbs can be readily identified by the helping verbs that accompany them; ‘could,’ and ‘were’ are two very common companions. Occasionally, a subjunctive verb will be found in a ‘that’ phrase, as in the sentence, “She thinks that I poisoned her son.”

There are a couple of occasions when writers need to pay special attention to subjunctive verbs. The first is when they themselves are communicating uncertain or impossible information to the reader. Here, the subjunctive mood makes it clear that the verb’s action is occurring on an abstract level.

The second occasion is when a character is speaking about information that may or may not happen. One of the most common tics in human speech is the habitual confusion of “was” and “were” when speaking in the subjunctive mood. Although an educated or genteel character is likely to ponder “what would happen if she were there,” less sophisticated characters will be more prone to talking about “what I would do if I was in your shoes.”

Subjunctive verbs can convey much more information to the reader than a simple action. They can convey whether the action is certain to happen, they can convey the character’s attitude toward the action, and they can convey the character’s level of sophistication. The informational density of the subjunctive tense is just one example of how flexible a verb can be.

How Productive Is Your Writing Group?

Wasp eating a butterflyWorkshopping your stories with your peers is an essential part of developing your skills as a writer. By sharing your work with others and offering it up for critique, you can get a great sense of your writing’s strengths and weaknesses. However, just because you’re in a writing group doesn’t mean that you’re getting the constructive criticism you writing needs.

Writing groups tend to go wrong in a couple of ways. More often than not, thankfully, they tend to stray in the ‘too polite’ direction. It’s good for writers to encourage each other, and it never hurts to have a positive environment when you’re just beginning to write fiction, but there will come a point when someone needs to tell you that something doesn’t work. If your writing group is so devoted to positive comments that it neglects to point out flaws in its members’ writing, then it’s time to call this deficiency to your group’s attention. Praise is good when it’s earned, but respectful criticism is also essential to your development as writers.

On the other end of the spectrum is the toxic writing group. For some people, everything has to be a contest, and they will treat your writing like a performance that’s being measured against theirs. Although every writer should learn to accept blunt, honest criticism, there is no need to sit quietly while somebody insults you personally or suggests that you’re a hopeless writer. Criticism need not always be soft and fluffy, but it should point you in a direction that will help you improve your writing. Don’t be afraid to leave a toxic writing group behind. When the criticism of your work is focused more on the critic than on the work, it has ceased to be helpful, and your time is better spent with a more mature writing group.

Although most writers find their writing groups to be a source of helpful, constructive criticism, there are times when these groups veer off course. Be aware of when a writing group has become too polite or too rude, and don’t be afraid to speak up when you see the group headed in an unproductive direction! Writing groups should not be nurseries or wolves’ dens, but rather positive and instructive spaces where writers can share, learn, and improve their craft.