The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘creativity

I did it. I couldn’t resist. I gave myself the gift of a MasterClass with the amazing Margaret Atwood! MasterClass brings online learning to you from experts in everything from cooking (e.g. Alice Waters) to tennis (e.g. Serena Williams). They have a number of writers to choose from including R.L. Stine, James Patterson, Malcom Gladwell and Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood’s a writer I absolutely adore! Truth be told, she’s the kind of writer that if I met a trickster spirit and they offered me a deal like, “You can write like Margaret Atwood, but you’d have to give up a limb.” I’d seriously consider it. Well, yes, I know…never trust a trickster spirit! I imagine though you, too, have writers whose work you adore and strive to emulate.

I thought how can I pass up an opportunity to study with her? I decided I couldn’t. I plunked down about $200 for an “all access pass” (which allows you to have year-long access to the videos and lifetime access to all the materials + access to other classes). She has 20+ pre-recorded videos that explore a variety of topics including writing through roadblocks, structuring a novel, revealing the world using sensory imagery, revision, etc.  Also included is a workbook crammed with exercises, additional thoughts, reading lists, etc. The first few videos I watched I could barely concentrate because I was TREMBLING while viewing Margaret Atwood right there in front of me talking about our shared passion—writing! I broke out in glee blisters (OK, so there’s probably no such a thing as a glee blister, but you do understand my level of enthusiasm).

The videos are infused with her wit, humor and wisdom. I think the MasterClass presents a unique opportunity to study with world class teachers. [BTW, I’m not getting paid to say this!]

I learned tons—so much so I am still digesting it all. These three tips below have stayed with me and they might be useful to you, too.

1) “Story is what happens. Structure is how you tell it.” Master simple chronological storytelling before tackling complex narrative variations. In one of the lessons, Margaret Atwood riffs on the different ways one could structure the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

The story would be the same but you could tell it a variety of ways using a different structure:

–beginning to end; starting in the middle (e.g. “It was dark inside the wolf. The grandmother who had been gobbled whole couldn’t say a word, because it was quite stifling and full of old chicken parts and plastic bags that the wolf had eaten by mistake”); using time jumps (“Little was Little Red Riding Hood to know that in two weeks’ time she would be looking back at one of the most definitive events of her life.”); start with a flashback; tell it from a different perspective, etc.

I can see that while writing my first novel, my ambition exceeded my skill level. I didn’t know how to tell a multiple viewpoint story, some of which took place in the past and also involved a number of time jumps. I just wasn’t a skilled enough writer back then to pull that off. I finally did find a path forward by excerpting material in what became my novella, Reenu-You. It is still complex for a novella in that it has two first person narrators and uses journalistic devices (i.e. emails, commercials, etc.) to tell a layered story.

Can you apply Atwood’s insight to a piece that you are working on that feels too complex and isn’t working? Can you find a way to simplify the narrative structure so you can tell the story that you want?

2) Writers have to think about narrative order. Margaret Atwood says that writers have to figure out who knows what and when in a story. And, you have to consider what effect your decisions, about the order of what is revealed, will have on the reader.

“One question you can ask yourself, if you’re writing: Does the reader know more than the character, or does the character know more than the reader? Or do they both know the same amount? Because it’s going to be one of those three.”

-When the reader knows more than the character that can create suspense.
-When the character knows more than the reader that can create narrative irony.

Atwood said it took her three attempts to figure out who would tell the story in The Blind Assassin!

I’m the process of revising a mystery, so this insight has been highly relevant to figuring out when to reveal what detail to the reader.

What about you? Is there a story where you can play with the narrative order to create more tension and suspense in the story?

3)“Print out your work, read it aloud and while reading, use a ruler. Read slowly.”

This is how Margaret Atwood revises her work.

Now, I absolutely am a proponent of reading one’s work aloud, but I had never tried doing it slowly and with a ruler. Sounds simple, right? I had a story that I was prepping to send to a magazine and I decided to try her method —I used a bookmark as I didn’t have a ruler. Wow, was this a revelatory experience! I noticed everything, the rhythm of words, word choice, when sentences were too long or short. I loved this process and will use it for final revisions moving forward; it gave me such a bigger and richer perspective on editing.

Do you have a piece that you’re about to submit and think it’s ready to go? Try Margaret’s technique and see what you discover.

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It’s the end of the first week of July. We’re in the third quarter of the year.

As I look back over the first two quarters, I can count some successes:

Two pieces of mine are out circulating in the world!

My novelette “Doll Seed” appears in the recent issue of FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. FIYAH is a quarterly, digital publication of fantasy, science fiction, and horror by Black writers. It is about dolls, magic and civil rights! You can read excerpts and even hear a playlist for the issue, as well as buy the issue here.

My essay, “The Poison Our Grandmothers and Mothers Drank” is reprinted in this gorgeous new book whose cover I love:

Available for purchase at all online booksellers.

My goal for the next 90 days include producing a fast draft of my horror novel. I’m aiming for around 60,000 words. I was inspired to do this by Rachael Herron’s YouTube video about why it is a good thing to fast draft a book. Rachael Herron is an author and podcaster. She said doing a fast draft ensures you are the same writer from roughly start to finish. As a writing instructor she said she witnessed many students struggle with projects that were undertaken over many many years. She said these kinds of projects can be beasts to revise because the writing was completed in very different stages of ability. That makes so much sense to me as someone who has had to mine a 400,000 word unfinished novel over the years!

She gives great suggestions on how to fast draft a novel (but could work for memoir, too), including how to outline and how to stay motivated with the writing. Herron backs up her ideas by describing the success stories of her students that she’s taken through this process. In some ways producing a fast draft over 90 days is like doing an extended NaNoWriMo, but without the exhaustion and frantic energy.

Beginning July 1, I committed to writing between 800-1,000 words a day, 5 days a week.

To give me a little more incentive and accountability, I decided to post my word counts on my Author Facebook page. Knowing I am sharing it with everyone there keeps me honest–public accountability = heightened private results.

It’s funny how quickly one can establish a new normal when you commit. I made my goal this week and have almost 5,000 words. Fast drafting is by far the hardest part of my day and so I try to get to it before the afternoon. This pace hopefully will be my new normal for the next 90 days to produce a draft.

I’m also doing Camp NaNoWriMo, a virtual writing retreat that takes place in July. If there’s a project you’d like to set a goal to move toward completing in July, this might be a fantastic way to get support.

Thinking about and writing a fast draft of the novel is going to take up most of this quarter. I’ll still actively submit work, but I won’t be producing a lot of new work. I’m also judging a literary award for the North Carolina Humanities Council and a writing fellowship for the North Carolina Writers’ Network, so I’ll be busy with those service commitments. It’ll be busy but really fun!

What are your third quarter goals?

I’ve been named as one of the judges for two upcoming opportunities for North Carolina writers. If that describes you, please consider applying as the deadlines for both are soon.

The Sally Buckner Emerging Writers’ Fellowship is sponsored by the North Carolina Writers’ Network. Writers must be in the early stages of their careers and must be between the ages of 21 and 35, as of December 31 of the year in which they apply.

Fellowship recipients will use the $500 award to allay the costs associated with the business of writing: paper, printing, writing supplies, submission fees, research expenses, travel, conference registration fees, etc. In addition to the cash award, recipients will receive a complimentary one-year membership in the NCWN, as well as scholarship aid to attend the Network’s annual Fall Conference.

Deadline June 30

More details here.

The Linda Flowers Literary Award is new and is sponsored by the North Carolina Humanities Council. The North Carolina Humanities Council invites original, unpublished entries of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry for this award.

The award is given to exceptional North Carolina authors whose work celebrates the North Carolina experience and conveys excellence in writing. Entries must not exceed 10 pages. Entries must be from authors who are at least 18 years of age and currently live in North Carolina. Entries should detail examinations of intimate, provocative, and inspiring portraiture of North Carolina, its people and cultures. Entries should be deeply engaged with North Carolina by drawing on particular North Carolina connections and/or memories. Entries should demonstrate excellence in the humanities. Entries, regardless of genre, should be original, unpublished works. There is a cash award of $1500 and a writing residency.

Deadline: June 28

More details here.

 

This week, I’ve been deep in editing land for my novelette “Doll Seed” due to appear next month in FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction.

It’s always a revelation to receive editorial comments on a story. Especially a story that you’ve lived with for years, have honed substantially and have vetted through numerous writing groups.  Such was the case for “Doll Seed”.

In the past few years, I’ve felt lucky to have worked with fantastic editors. Great editors reveal new perspectives in your work, encourage clarity and support your authorial voice. In the case of Reenu-You and Nussia with Book Smugglers Press, I spent time revising a few scenes where my characters were under reacting.  With “Doll Seed”, I worked some on this issue, but more on clarifying how the magic works in the story and fine tuning the ending. I enjoyed editing “Doll Seed”. In revising these stories, all of which were written years ago, I see how much I’ve grown as a writer and storyteller.

One of the tools that has helped me become more proficient at self-editing has been my ‘weasel words’ list. A few years ago, I took a class on revision and the instructor introduced us to a list of words and/or phrases that weaken one’s writing. We can usually either delete the word or find a more active and vivid word to substitute. I believe she adapted this list from the one in James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Writers. I keep this list close when I revise. Doing a search for these words once yielded dramatic results. Last year, I was frantically trying to pare a story down to submit to an anthology and using this list I reduced the word count by over 500 words! That’s a lot of weasel words to round up!

Weasel Words to Watch Out For

Very
Almost
Just
Really
Finally
Actually
Maybe
Definitely
Certainly
A little
A lot
A bit
Tried to
Started to
Began to
Wanted to
Meant to
Intended to
Had to
Had been

I also overuse the words lively, inviting and flat in describing the expression of a character’s eyes.

Do you have a weasel words list? What are your pet phrases that you strike when revising?

I’m taking a break from my weekly post to share this interview that rocked my world and is worth a listen. It is led by Brooke Warner, author and co-creator of SheWrites Press and Tayari Jones, NYT bestselling author. Brooke interviewed Tayari during the recent Bay Area Book Festival.

Jones gives an incredible interview that details what happens when the publishing world gives up on you and how she not only continued to believe in herself, as a writer, but also thrive. She talks about writing her recent novel, An American Marriage and how she created characters and a story line that challenge notions of what makes a marriage and relationship work. She also discusses why she used fiction to explore the inequities of the criminal justice system and class dynamics in the African American community. It’s a compelling interview because Brooke is a fantastic interviewer who poses substantive questions and Tayari brings warmth, honesty and humor in sharing her writing journey. I found out about this interview because it was posted through the Write-Minded podcast. If you don’t know about Write-Minded with Brooke (and co-host Grant Faulkner), check it out–they offer a great format (e.g. writing actions and “green light” moments), they interview a wide spectrum of authors and they also provide inspirational writing advice. Listen to the interview here.

I am so thrilled and honored to share this news—I recently sold my novelette “Doll Seed” to FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. FIYAH is a quarterly, digital publication of fantasy, science fiction, and horror by Black writers. FIYAH emerged to nurture, support and amplify Black speculative fiction writers. They have done amazing work highlighting voices that have been ignored, for many years, by speculative fiction editors, agents, publishers. They won a World Fantasy Award last year and are up for a Hugo award this year. Their acceptance statement for the World Fantasy award is moving and articulates why their work is so important.

The fact that “Doll Seed” found a home with FIYAH is very meaningful to me. I’ve worked on this story for a long time.  It is a character driven story that intersects the world of dolls with civil rights Last year, I submitted another story to them which they didn’t accept, but they encouraged me to send them something else. I sent ‘Doll Seed’ in for their unthemed issue. The issue will be available on July 1. I’ll make sure to post a link here.

 

I had a wonderful time as a panelist at Greensboro Bound. The moderators for each panel were excellent. We received their questions a week before the conference. Our moderators were well-prepared, able to flow with the conversation and drew out the best from each of us. I am always appreciative of others’ moderating skills as I am often a moderator in my academic life (at conferences) and increasingly at sci-fi conventions and other writing venues. I love moderating and take it very seriously. I see my job as making sure that others shine and that everyone participates as equally as possible.

I’ve been reflecting on my participation as panelist. Overall, I did very well and wasn’t too nervous. I was, however, a bit over prepared. I had pages of notes and an outline. In one case, we were seated on a stage which made balancing my folder unwieldy. The other panelists were clearly prepared too, but they seemed to talk easily without notes. I was so wedded to mine that I felt like I missed connecting with the audience a few times. I also think when one can speak confidently without notes, one’s body language is more open. Sometimes I get too focused on trying to get it all right they way that I have it in my head (or notes) as opposed to just being open to what I want to share.  Before events like this, I’m always a bit worried that my memory is going to fail me right when I need it the most. There’s so much to talk about in relation to one’s work and the nuances thereof. When I let go of the notes, however, and ‘saying it just right’, my humor and passion came through naturally. Again, from the outside I don’t think my participation looked that different than the other panelists, but I was struck with the performance of the other panelists.

One is always learning how to be a writer in public and I look forward to the next opportunity I have to talk without notes!


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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