Getting stomped: the private editor’s (occasional) lot

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When a writer submits her pages to the Girl Group, the other members read them carefully and make notes in the margins; I read them and line-edit. That’s my job, as with any writer, in or out of the group.

Not long ago at a GG meeting, one of the writers said to me, “At first when I read your comments I thought, ‘She doesn’t understand what I’m trying to do here, she completely missed it, these comments are useless to me.'” And then she laughed. “The next day when I reread your comments I realized you’d gotten it completely and the comments were on the nose.”

That’s not a story about how good I am, but about how much the writer loved her text and needed twenty-four hours to get over it so she could take advantage of the editing. This particular writer is getting better and better, as a result of her openness to possible changes. That’s how the process should work.

If I’m tactful and kind and also incisive and smart, it’s how the process usually works. But it’s not how the process always works. For one thing, I’m human and I goof. Not that often, but yes, I goof. I make a dumb suggestion or I miss the point; I push too hard or I’m unclear; I urge one sort of direction when the writer wants to go in another direction, or the opposite happens—I’m too forgiving and don’t rein in a writer who’s going off on a useless tangent. It happens.

In a writers’ group, where you’re all face to face, this can be corrected quickly. Writer A just says to me, No, no, no, that’s not where I want to take this, and we discuss it and resolve it.

Problems are much more likely to arise when I’m working with a writer who’s in Chicago or wherever and our exchanges are by e-mail. Unless she picks up the phone and talks to me, there’s a chance that her unhappiness with my editing or my behavior can turn into acrimony. This hasn’t occurred very often, because I’m careful about how I edit, but the times it has occurred have been memorable—to me, anyway.

In one case, for instance, I referred to a tiny bit of awkward writing as a problem of the writer’s having English as a second language. She insisted that she’d grown up writing in English, all the way through her MFA, that she’d never written in any other language, and that I was condescending and she was shocked. Whew. Horrified that I’d made such an egregious error, I apologized for giving offense.

And then I carefully reread her argument: “I have never written anything in any other language (except of course when I was a child in school) and I’ve been a professional writer…for fifteen years.”

Whoops: English was in fact her second language, and any editor with a sharp ear (yes, ear) would have caught the same little awkwardness and known it came from that leftover early education in another language. Some writers could have laughed off the mistake and the crit; this writer flew into a rage. End of editing relationship.

And then there’s money. Money—payment—can turn the sweetest clients sour. I try to make it clear to the writers I work with that I do the work quickly and I expect to be paid quickly. I’m a freelancer: fast payment is part of the deal. I’m not a big company that can afford to wait around for remittance. But if a writer doesn’t like the critique I’ve given her, she can take out her anger by dawdling about payment. Hence this little exchange:

Dear X—Everyone pays her bills differently, but I haven’t yet received a second check from you. Perhaps it will show up in today’s mail, but if you haven’t sent it yet, I’d appreciate your getting it to me ASAP. I do the work promptly, so I’m accustomed to being paid promptly. Thanks for attending to this.

Best, Lorrie

And this is what I got back:

Dear Lorrie,

I can’t believe you sent me this e-mail. I pay my bills at the end of the month. I’m insulted by your implication, especially since we only spoke two weeks ago.

I always honor my commitments, even when I’m not satisfied with the results. I won’t work with you again. I’m shocked you would treat a friend of Z’s this way.

End of editing relationship, but she did pay the bill—even though she wasn’t satisfied with the results.

My third-favorite mess was with a woman who was new to writing but hardly new to business. And hardly new to asking for perks she wasn’t precisely entitled to, like requesting I send her not just my critique of her work (as contracted) but also the many pages of manuscript on which I had scribbled the notes I used for writing the lengthy crit that she was entitled to. So okay, I hesitantly agreed to send her the annotated pages, explaining that they were rough and might seem tactless. No problem, she wrote back—she was sure they’d be helpful.

Then she wrote me yet another e-mail asking me to give her advice about the next book she was planning to write, and we had this exchange:

Dear Q—I don’t mean to be rude, but advice (usually called consultation) is what I do for a living, at $100+ per hour. I’ve already given you quite a lot of critique, advice, suggestions, and I’ve even mailed the marked-up pages to you the moment you asked for them. I believe I’ve fulfilled my commitment to you and earned my fee; I simply don’t have time to give you more. Nothing personal at all; just the exigencies of the freelance life. Good luck on the new book.

She wrote back:

Once again I am surprised and saddened by the lack of professionalism in the writing world. Unfortunately I was not aware of exactly what my money bought me and now question your advice. My e-mail could have been responded to with a ten word sentence, not much of your time. I apologize for not understanding the boundaries and promise not to make contact again.

The reason these three creepy incidents stand out is, of course, because they’re so rare. Most writers are wonderful to work with, understand what they need and how I can help them, and then get on with their work. I do not disclaim my own fumbles and stumbles, but it’s clients like these who make me ever more careful about whom I choose to work with.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Kramerbooks & afterwords, Washington, DC

Barbara’s Bookstore, Chicago, IL

Cannon Beach Book Company, Cannon Beach, OR

 

Thanks for…

Needless to say, one is thankful for friends and family, shelter and good food, health and solvency, ideas to think about and projects to work on. But this is a blog about writing and reading, so a very particular list emerges. Here are a few of the gifts I’ve appreciated this year.

libraries & librarians

My own beloved New York Society Library heads this category, along with every librarian, events producer, acquisitions person, cataloguer, circulation desker, conservator, systems specialist, development honcho, bookkeeper, and maintenance person at the NYSL. And anyone at the NYSL whom I might inadvertently have left out.

independent bookstores

Heroes, all. Champions of life, literature, joy, and freedom. GO, INDIES! (Note all the links to indies at the bottom of my posts; see IndieBound for much more info on independent bookstores.)IMG_0579

the authors guild

Of which I have been a member since 1988, and—I regret to say—am still paying the same amount of annual dues because you pay according to what you earn from your writing. However, I’m always delighted to write the (small) check because the Authors Guild has done so much good work and continues to do so.

the authors who took a stand against the gorilla

This year nothing surprised me more than the birth of Authors United, the movement started by Douglas Preston and joined by so many writers of note and less note, to speak out during the Amazon/Hachette battle.

my laptops

A special thank-you for my writing tools: My laptops (one MacBookPro and one MacAir) are my intimates. Image 1It may sound a little crazy, but I feel a very powerful bond with each of them—as if we’re in this thing together. Anthropomorphizing pieces of hardware isn’t always wise, because they break down in nonhuman ways that can only be cured by an expert (for whom I’m thankful too: Laurie Duncan of MacSamurai). On the other hand, when I’m nose to nose with either laptop, I usually feel as if I’m having conversation with another person. It’s a good feeling.

the writing retreat that starts tomorrow

Endless gratitude to my beloved friends architect Michael Rubin and landscape architect David Kamp for lending their Shelter Island home to a writer who badly needs a little time to herself, to think and write and calm down. The next blog post will be written on the island, from a blue-painted table with a long view of yard and meadow.

and the girl group, which has ended…for now

Yes, after four amazing years, the Girl Group is over. It’s been a wonderful ride, a rich and rewarding experience, but it’s time for the (current) writers to try life without the group. Well, without this group, anyway. Maybe they’ll surprise me and start a different group, though it’s my hope that each writer will work on her own for a while. This photo shows our (now former) lair: the corner table at the Pembroke Room in the Lowell Hotel, where the GG has been meeting from the get-go. It looks very ladylike, but the GGs are not. Many’s the time an un-tea-room-like word has rung out, turning the heads of actual ladies eating petits fours and cucumber sandwiches.

more time for writing, as of now

I worked double-hard for the past twelve months, banked some dough, and it appears that maybe I’m going to have a writing sabbatical, barring disaster. All plans these days are bracketed by “maybe” and “barring disaster.” But I’m hopeful for the new year, and I trust you are too, for your new year and new projects.

Whether you’re spending this national day of observance with family, friends, or—as I have chosen—alone, The Book Under Her Bed wishes you a happy day.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Hooray for Books!, Alexandria, VA

Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, VT

A Room of One’s Own, Madison, WI

 

 

 

Am I a writer?

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This is a story for and a message to my Girl Group, which is winding down after four years. All six of us need a break from our weekly and, for most of the past year, every-other-weekly meetings. I need more time for finishing my novel, writing this blog, giving proper attention to my private clients, and dealing with my elderly parents.

The GGs need something quite different: independence from the group, to find out if they will keep writing on their own. Each of them has to answer the question, Am I a writer? 

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I’m sitting in the aisle seat of a 737 flying east from Salt Lake City to New York. Two very nice Oregon ladies occupy the middle and window seats. The three of us start to chat: they’d love to stay in New York for a few days, but they’re on their way to Egypt and the Holy Land.

Uh-oh, religion. Don’t go there. What to talk about? Books. Mrs. Window Seat turns out to be a retired librarian, Mrs. Middle Seat’s husband is writing his memoirs. What, they ask me, do you do?

I’m a writer.

Their eyes widen, they smile, they’re…avid. What do you write? they ask.

Now I’m in the same soup I always land in when that question comes up. I write fiction, but aside from a few short stories, it’s unpublished. I write a blog, but not everyone takes blogs all that seriously even when the content is serious. So what do I tell these very conventional, very sweet airplane ladies who are excited about meeting a Real Writer?

I tell them the truth: I’ve written more than thirty books—cookbooks, craft books, list books, books about food—and dozens of short articles for my brother’s imprint (though I don’t name Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader; I don’t know how shockable these women are). But now, I continue to explain, I write only fiction and my blog.

The airplane ladies are on the receiving end of a technique I use: establishing my nonfiction credentials so that my choice to abandon the world of pop books makes a credible story that leads into the present. That is, I left the world of nonfiction books in order to write novels and more short stories, to teach writers, to invent a thoughtful and wide-ranging blog for writers and readers. Voila! I’ve presented the facts with the spin I insist on.

I am a writer, whether my current work is being published or not. I am a writer, because I write. A lot. Most days. Sometimes it’s my novel or a short story; often it’s a blog post. Or a talk I’m giving, notes for new work, the occasional poem—it’s all writing.

So the question is, are you a writer? It’s an important question to answer for yourself because if you define yourself as a writer, you must write. You can’t say you’re a writer if you don’t write, unless you’re Alice Munro or Philip Roth and you’ve already written a huge body of brilliant work and you’re taking a well-deserved breather.

Excluding periods of so-called “writer’s block,” periods of incapacitation, and periods of rest (to let the well fill up again), writers write. If you write steadily—even if you’re Mrs. Middle Seat’s husband attempting his memoir—you are a writer.

But you’re not a writer if you…

  • can’t find or make time to write
  • let too many other people’s needs override your own needs, too often
  • find ten thousand reasons not to write
  • can’t be alone, or alone in your own head even with people around you (as in a writers’ room or a café)
  • let your partner/mother/father/friend bully you into believing you aren’t allowed to be the writer you want to be, which is another way of saying “if you let someone else define you”
  • aren’t having any fun with (or at least satisfaction from) your writing
  • have nothing to say
  • would mostly prefer to be doing something else

You could spend a lot of time explaining to yourself why you’re not writing…when you could be writing. Or you could stop hitting your head against the wall, stop writing, and go do something you like better.

But here’s what I’ve been soft-shoeing around: you know whether or not you want to be a writer. If you do, then write. If you don’t, then don’t write.

I once had a private client who finally completed the mystery novel she’d been trying to conquer for years. It wasn’t very good, and I had to tell her so; that was my job. I do these critiques as kindly as I can, because every writer is vulnerable. But the facts were the facts: this novel wasn’t going to fly. The writer responded:

You are absolutely right. I wish I’d met you years ago. It’s not pleasant to realize that I wasted so much energy on a poorly conceived project. But I’m giving up the literary life and buying a racing boat.

I sincerely hope she did, and had a wonderful time with it.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Buffalo Street Books, Ithaca, NY

Destinations Booksellers, New Albany, IN

Copperfield’s Books, Sebastopol, CA

The jolt, part 2

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Last Thursday, September 18, I posted “Tales of the Girl Group: the jolt, part 1,” about jolting two members of the Girl Group out of their book outlines and into their actual manuscripts. It was inadvertently easy: To get them moving, I gave them an assignment to write something playful, and as soon as they realized they didn’t want to do the assignment they got down to writing their books.

The point of a jolt is to move you from running in place to running. To kidnap you from writing that’s repetitive and going nowhere, and transport you to writing that has energy and substance.  The deliberate writing kind of jolt (as opposed to the accidental jolt described above) turns you temporarily away from the work you’re not doing and gets you writing something completely different. It’s a little like taking a busman’s holiday, but more fun.

Jolts come in all sorts of forms, lengths, topics, and moods. What they have in common is that they’re not like the writing you’ve been doing. If you’re writing a memoir about your family, a jolt could be a short story or a poem. If you’re mired in a novel, a jolt could be a memory piece about your grandmother. If you’re working too hard on a collection of nonfiction essays, a jolt might be writing a fairy tale. Of course you can’t write something you’re completely unsuited to—poetry isn’t for everyone—but there’s always some new direction you can go, just for a short time.

20 J O L T S TO GET YOU GOING
  1. Write a dialogue between your parents. Not a dialogue you’ve actually heard—a dialogue you hope never to hear.
  2. Write a huge, screaming fight between two close friends. Do they get past it?
  3. Describe, in detail, a place you love. Invoke all your senses—but don’t explain why you love the place; that should be revealed in what you write about it.
  4. Write a one-act play.
  5. Write a short story in the genre of fantasy or science fiction.
  6. Describe the worst, most humiliating experience you had in high school.
  7. Write a short-short story about your favorite painting. The story behind the painting? Or the story that happens in front of the painting?
  8. Write a memory piece about a relative you love dearly. It should be so touching that you make yourself cry.
  9. Write a memory piece about a relative you loathe—no holds barred. Get enraged.
  10. Find a photograph you’ve never seen before, one you really like, and write a narrative about it.
  11. Take one paragraph from a story you wrote a while ago and expand it to ten pages.
  12. Write a short epistolary story. That means letters sent between characters, or letters sent by one person, which add up to a story.
  13. Tell about a sexual encounter—good, bad, or indifferent. Details, please.
  14. Invent three short poems about three times of the day. Make them work together.
  15. Write a children’s story you would have loved when you were five.
  16. Write a biting political satire.
  17. Describe the best meal you’ve ever had, where you had it, and with whom (if anyone).
  18. Tell a story about a journey—any kind of journey.
  19. Your beloved pet—need I say more?
  20. Write a song. Make it long.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, MA

Full Circle Bookstore, Oklahoma City, OK

Diesel, a Book Store, Oakland, CA

Tales of the Girl Group: the jolt, part 1

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About three years ago, two members of the Girl Group were struggling with the problem of how to write what they wanted to write. Each knew her topic and her general subject matter but could not decide how to shape the material into a coherent structure for a book-length work. Both writers were making outlines, outlines, and more outlines.

They were getting nowhere, but they were convinced that if only they could get the outlines “right” they’d be able to start their manuscripts. The deeper problem, though, was that each was coming down from a grueling year of issues that had nothing to do with the writing they wanted to be doing. Neither could find focus because their heads were still full of leftover overload.

Every writer has been there. For some writers, writing is the way to work themselves out of a headful of junk; for other writers, trying to write before they clear out the mess is an exercise in futility. Another way of saying this: some writers respond to more pressure; other writers have to get free of pressure before ideas begin to flow again. And for yet other writers, a little of each can get them moving forward—a three-hour push of writing followed by a bike ride or choir practice or a movie.

You probably know (or think you know) which kind of writer you are. I wasn’t sure, at that time, which category either of these two GG members belonged to, but they definitely needed an assignment that would give them a jolt.

What  you need is a change of plan, not a change of outline. I would like each of you to put aside for the moment all notions of work and think only of play. I would like each of you to write only something that is fun and pleasurable. No heavy dissections of life, no complex behavioral analyses. Let all that go for the moment.

Sit down and write something that delights you. Something frivolous or funny or sexy or silly. It might be about food or clothes or your childhood best friend. The first time you French-kissed. The best manicure you ever had. How much you hated your English teacher or your sibling. Anything that you will enjoy writing about. That’s your assignment.

Many painters—when they’ve had too much of the heavy-duty painting—go back to simple, entertaining, undemanding media. Like paper and crayons. I’m suggesting that you do the same, for now. The point is to write, not to write War and Peace.

Free your mind; stop being so demanding. Being demanding will only freeze you up even more. Give your unconscious some recuperative time. While you’re writing things that give you pleasure (instead of torture), your psyche will be relaxing and hatching new ideas.

Did these two woman take my excellent advice? They did not. What we found out simply by my suggesting that they lighten up for a while was that they weren’t experiencing resistance or avoidance; they were just confused, running in place. They needed to be shoved into making a choice, and giving them an assignment forced them into choosing: do I want to play for a while or do I want to take on the bigger work?

Neither of them wanted to lighten up: the very idea of lightening up and having fun shocked them. Gave them a jolt. They swung into gear, ditched the obsessive outlining, and started writing.

Does that mean my advice was bad? It does not. My advice was good—for someone who needs a time-out to try something different before returning to her primary work. If you’re that person and you’re obsessing over some part of your work, consider giving yourself a temporary writing assignment that will help you break out of repetitive writing behavior.

MONDAY’S POST will be “The jolt, part 2: 15 temporary writing assignments to jolt you out of whatever you need jolting out of.” Don’t miss it.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Left Bank Books, St. Louis, MO

Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, VT

Hicklebee’s, San Jose, CA

No is YES

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Today’s post is about saying no, but not in a mood of negativity: quite the opposite. Saying no to people, pets, events, dates, activities, and other distractions when you need time for yourself is positive

I asked the Girl Group to think about this business of saying no, and got interesting responses. Geralyn Lucas, author of the forthcoming (in October) Then Came Life, said this: “My therapist helped a lot. She said, ‘Saying yes to something means saying no to others.’ I always feel guilty saying no, but she made me realize I was really saying YES.”

The context of my question to the GGs was writing, naturally. How do you learn to say no in order to make (or take) the time you need for your own work? What are the things you must do versus the things you think you must do? What comes first, when you have to choose among demands—the demands of your writing or the demands of your family, friends, job, and all the other tugs-on-your-sleeve?

These decisions aren’t easy, and nobody can make them for you; only you can judge the importance of your need to write, relative to those tugs. What you want to watch out for, though, is saying an unconsidered yes to a demand that may not—when you think about it carefully—be as important as it seems at first.

Time out for a laugh: Here’s another answer to my question about saying no, from GG member Lynda Myles.

The ONLY reasons why I would say no to a friend’s invite:

  1. I’m hiking in the Andes and I can’t get home in time.
  2. I’m unconscious in the I.C.U.
  3. I have to produce the script/story/article by tomorrow morning at 9 am and I’ve only got half of it done!!! Well, maybe for just a quick drink.​

And these are the excuses I give myself for accepting invitations ​when I should be writing:

  1. I may not have another chance to spend time with this person again.
  2. It’d be a crime to turn down a free ticket to a Broadway show.
  3. There’s NEVER a time when I shouldn’t be writing, damn it! I have a life to live!
  4. I’ll do it another day, when I feel like writing.

So how important is it to you to write? How important is it to you to write today? How important is it to you to write tomorrow?

I’m not always too terrific with this issue myself. I have been known to insist on cleaning up my apartment before sitting down to write—even though I face a wall when I’m writing. It can be hard to differentiate between a) avoidance of (or resistance to) my work, and b) everything else. I can say yes to a movie and regret it later (why did I waste my precious time on that dumb film?)—but I can also struggle at my computer when I know I should be giving myself a rest.

Anxiety plays a big part in this discussion. If you’re anxious about your writing, almost any distraction can be turned into an escape, a “must-do.” But if you’re anxious about whether the kids are strangling each other in the back yard, even the writing you love most can be impossible to focus on.

Often the biggest obstacle to commandeering time for your writing is the fear of making changes.  Let’s say your mom is accustomed to getting a phone call from you every day at four p.m. One day you start writing at 2:30 p.m., and when 4:00 p.m. arrives you don’t want to stop because you’re on a roll. Conflict! You can stop writing and be pissed off at yourself and your mom, or you can keep writing and risk having your mother angry at you.

Or imagine that you’re writing well at eight a.m. on a Saturday and suddenly the entire family piles into your little writing room yelling for pancakes. Or your spouse or partner is making sounds of discontent just loud enough for you to hear when you’re in the middle of a hot chapter. Or a client calls you at home during the two evening hours you’ve managed to eke out for writing, and wants to discuss that morning’s meeting.

There’s also: let’s have sex; the dog is throwing up; we’re out of milk; my boss is coming for dinner tomorrow; Aunt Fussy’s garden party is next week; they need an usher for Tiffany’s ballet recital; my teacher wants you to bake cookies for the class party; someone has to balance the checkbook pronto; and did you remember to buy a birthday present for Cousin Crabby?

Need I go on? I could, and you could too, with your own unique list of interruptions, some of which may be important—and some, not so much.

The time to make changes is before you find yourself flipping pancakes.  And the trick to making the kind of changes that will result in more time for your writing is actually five tricks. Tough ones, and they apply to everyone—married or single, kids or no kids, home job or office job, younger or older.

  1. Explain carefully and resolutely to the people who are going to get less of your time why they’re going to get less of it and how much less.
  2. Accept that those people are probably not going to be happy about it. They might even get mean.
  3. Be prepared to hang in while they get used to the changes. They will, eventually.
  4. Stick to your guns. No backsliding—well, only rarely and only on special occasions.
  5. Remind yourself firmly and frequently that you may be saying no to other people’s needs, but you’re saying yes to your own needs. Yes, yes, yes.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Bluestockings, New York, NY

Hyde Brothers, Booksellers, Fort Wayne, IN

King’s English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, UT

 

General vs. specific

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One of the Girl Group members wrote me a short e-mail this week: she was in a terrible time crunch, rushed off her feet. She described her major task briefly, ending with, “You can imagine.”

That phrase—“You can imagine”—got stuck in my head.

In fact, I couldn’t imagine what she was going through since it was something I’d never experienced. She left me wanting to know more, which started me thinking about how we use generalities in writing.

We all make assumptions about what and how much other people understand, and those assumptions sneak into our writing. Writing from our own experience of the world, it’s easy to forget that other people don’t necessarily have the same experiences. No two people brush their teeth the same way, yet we imagine that the way we brush is the way everyone brushes. It’s risky to assume that the facts of your life are common to all readers.

So if you write, “Susie brushed her teeth in the usual way, and went to bed,” what are you assuming about your reader’s experience of teeth-brushing?

Will your reader think that Susie spent two minutes brushing sketchily and then dashed into the bedroom to leap under the covers? Or will she think that Susie used her electric toothbrush for five minutes, flossed, rinsed with chlorhexidine, smiled at her teeth in the mirror, and then strolled down the hall to her bedroom? Those are two very different Susies.

However, teeth-brushing may be a throwaway in your story. I often remind my students and clients that when the doorbell rings, a character should probably just go to the door and open it; he doesn’t have to get up, walk across the carpet, turn the doorknob, and pull the door open. Those are meaningless details that pad the action and add nothing.

Unless the way the character gets to that door is important (like crawling through a pool of blood), just get the character from here to there. General is a better choice  when you don’t want or need the reader to pay attention to anything more than simple mechanics. Effective writing is partly a matter of choosing when the specific is important—when it will illuminate character, set a scene better, make the plot work to advantage.

I learned to watch out for generalities from another writer friend, who would underline phrases in my work and then write in the margin: Really? Are you sure?

For instance, I might have written, “Children love to ride their bikes far away, to escape their parents’ watchful eyes.” Really? Good question. Some children might do that, but all children? No way. These particular children love to do that, while other kids prefer to ride around the yard in full sight of Mom and Dad.

The sentence is a dud unless we get the specific picture: “The two girls who lived down the block from Susie loved to ride…” And then, of course, the reader needs to know what it is about those parents that makes the kids want to escape. That’s what gives a story bite: less generality, more specificity where it counts.

What it comes down to is that you–writer—must be watchful. Sometimes you have to look assumption in the eye and recognize it clearly as assumption. And then you can use explanation, description, detail, dialogue, all the tools you own, to be specific so the reader can take the journey with you.

Sometimes. Not always. Your job as a writer is, in part, deciding exactly IF and WHERE you have to bridge those “assumption gaps” for the reader. You have to decide if specificity matters at point X in your work, or if you can let the reader make her own way. And the reader, for her part, owes you a little latitude. But how much?

In my linked short stories about a girl and her family, the mother isn’t always nice. Some readers have been unhappy about that: Does the mother have to be so mean?  Well, not every mother is nice, and this mother belongs to the Not-So-Nice Club. I wanted a little more latitude; I wanted those readers to drop their own assumptions and enter into the notion of a not-so-nice mother.

At the same time, though, the objections made me think carefully about whether that mother did have to be so mean. She did; the stories (especially the last one) don’t work if the mother is too sympathetic. There are times when you have to stand by your decisions: “This is what I mean. Take it or leave it.” And be prepared for the fallout.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge comes to mind. This book isn’t a huge favorite of mine, but I admire Strout’s insistence on her character’s nature: Olive is unlikable, but the stories that make up the novel are so involving that you go along with Olive’s abrasiveness anyway.

All this may appear to be getting us away from the issue of general vs. specific and the assumptions we have to guard against, but it’s not: Mean Mom wasn’t working because although she was very specific in her mean behaviors and remarks, I hadn’t made it clear why she behaved that way.

I had assumed it didn’t matter why Mom was mean, and it mattered very much. Mean was too general; without grounding it jarred repeatedly. Readers were really saying, “If I knew why Mom became so mean, I could get past my problem with her.” They needed the specifics, so that her meanness—though still irritating—would feel true to the character and therefore justified and necessary.

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 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Seminary Co-op Bookstores, Chicago, IL

Longfellow Books, Portland, ME

Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, NC

 

Girls? Did you say GIRLS?

It’s going to come up again and again: the Girl Group. This is a reference to the group of women writers in the writers’ workshop I lead and teach.

I’m a product of the Women’s Movement–a time during which my friends and I would go ballistic if anyone called any of us a girl. So if the term “Girl Group” bothers you, take a breath, trust me, and please follow this link to the very first post on The Book Under Her Bed. Or read the paragraph below, taken from that post.

The Book Under Her Bed is dedicated to the members, past and present, of the Wednesday afternoon writers’ workshop, which I have always called–behind their backs–the Girl Group.  I call it that not because these wonderful women are girlish, but because they always make me think of the Motown girl groups: they have style, courage, determination, and sass.  Above all, they have voices.

Geralyn Lucas : Ali Morra-Pearlman Barbara S. Ginsberg Lynda Myles Melissa Miles Jennifer Christman Ngan Nguyen Shulman Robin Stratton Rivera