Agile Writers Spotlight

spotlightOne of the great things about Agile Writers is the members. Agile Writers brings together a diverse group of people that range from college student to retiree, from editor to healthcare worker, and everyone in between. Each month the Agile Writers Spotlight will shine the light on one of these great people to hear their thoughts on writing and what it means to them.  Of course, the Spotlight will also be a great chance to brag! And who better to put into the Spotlight first than the man with the plan,

                                                                       Greg Smith

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Greg’s love of writing began in middle school when he wrote a short-story on time travel. Which he then had to read to the class because the teacher liked it so much. Although Greg’s love of writing began in his youth, it would not be until 2001 that he would begin his quest to find the answer to the question, “What makes a good story?”

If you have read Greg’s book Agile Writer Method: Your Novel in 6 Months, you already know the following story. If you haven’t read the book, do so. ASAP.  2001 was the year that Greg’s parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. He decided to gift them with a video-tape of their story, told through a series of interviews of his parents and a ton of other family members. The video was a hit with his family members. Not so much for people on the outside. This is when the quest began.

Greg spent five years running the Chesterfield Writer’s Club before deciding to start his own group. He wanted to create a group that was more than just a social meeting amongst writers. A group with structure and organization. He created Agile Writers and along with eighteen others created the Agile Writer’s Method. The Agile Writers Method is based on mythology, screenwriting, psychology, and project management.

Today Agile Writers has grown. Greg has moved into a new office and the increase in space allows Agile Writers to offer more classes and seminars on a multitude of writing subjects. The first Agile Writers Conference will also be held this coming January.  But….back to Greg.  So why would a software engineer and computer scientist spend so much time helping strangers complete their first drafts?

Greg have been working with computers for over 40 years and being the software engineer that he is, everything looks like a computer program. Even novel writing. When the Agile Writers Method was created, it became a step-by-step program that just about anyone can execute. Greg also runs Agile Writers because for him there is a thrill and sense of accomplishment every time someone completes their first draft. Without Agile Writers, some novels may not have made it across that first draft finish line.

One of the questions asked to Greg for the Agile Writer Spotlight was, if he was stranded on a deserted island what one book would he take and why? He had an interesting answer. He would take the dictionary, because, “it has all the words I’d need to create stories of my own.” And that is Greg Smith. Software engineer, author, and teacher. A man that looks at writing as a chance to examine all the questions he has about the world.

 

 

Not Just Hump Day

Untitled design(1)To most people Wednesday equals Hump Day.  They have made it halfway through their work week and the weekend is just around the corner. They are one step closer to Friday. But, not Agile Writers members. To us, Wednesdays mean that we can leave our working lives for two hours and enter the world of writing. Which for most is usually a solitary event, with just you and your computer, but this one night a week you are joined by others. And every week you leave with a little more knowledge to take home and help hone your craft.

Last week, July 27th, Agile Writers were lucky to have Richmond Writers organizer, Joe Erhardt, as our guest editor. Every month two members courageously offers up ten pages of their working manuscript to be thoroughly dissected. The pages are then put on the screen, red ink and all, for the entire group to see. I promise you, it’s not as scary as it sounds. Everyone leaves with valuable knowledge. Not just those whose pages were put on the chopping block. Each month you get to see, first hand, what editors are really looking and how to stay out of the rejection pile.  Our session with Joe Erhardt was no exception.

One of the most important things Joe said was to “write for the reader.” Although, I had heard this before I think it’s important enough to hear again. Many times as a writer you get caught up in the world you are creating and the message you are trying to get out that you forget this simple piece of advice. You are focused on you, and not the one that will be the buying your book. One thing I noticed about Joe is that he actually edits for the reader. All the while he is explaining the red ink throughout the pages he makes statements such as, “This will be easier for the reader,” “The reader would like/love this,” or “I think this would be confusing for the reader.” He edits and makes suggestions with the reader in mind.

Here are a few more things I learned from Joe:

  • Don’t write “off of.” Simply writing off is enough. For example, He jumped off of the cliff. Should be written-he jumped off the cliff.
  • Using the simple past –ed version of a word is more forceful than –ing. Use he rolled instead of he was rolling.
  • Using “as if” waters down whatever follows. Ask yourself if that phrase is really needed or wanted.
  • Try to avoid using “due to.” Unless it is being said by a character in dialogue.
  • Do Not have too many blank spaces if it’s not indicating a scene break. An editor may think you do not know what you are doing and you will be in the rejection pile.
  • Don’t say something is “unusual.” Describe it!
  • “Adverbs are cockroaches that need to be stomped on!” This was Joe’s response when asked by a fellow member what he thought about adverbs.

Of course, Joe Erhardt gifted the group with more knowledge than I can write here but I will leave you with this: If you can make readers care about your characters and their situations, it DOES NOT MATTER if what you are writing has been done before.

Announcing the Launch of Agile Rewriters

“The only kind of writing is rewriting.” – Ernest Hemingway

 

AW Logo BWThere’s an exciting new development underway at Agile Writers. Last week our fearless leader, Greg Smith, assembled a group of seven novelists in the process of writing a second, third, fourth or even fifth draft. He dubbed us the Agile Rewriters and bequeathed us Thursday nights, and we were off–swapping visions, ideas, struggles and solutions.

The task of the Agile Rewriters is to develop a repeatable method for the complex work of rewriting. Similar to the tried-and-true Agile Writer Method for creating a first draft novel in six months, the rewriters are ready to unpack and strategize the elements of successful rewriting.

How do we develop characters, organize timelines and backstory, decide on point of view, and test the mettle of each and every scene? How can we assess the cohesion and readability of our work? How do we empower our own style and voice to emerge?

How do we get our triumphantly produced 250 page rough drafts from the wobbly amateur stacks they are to the polished, marketable books we envision? And, as with all things in Agile Writers, how can we do that together, supporting one another through the process?

These are the questions we hope to successfully tackle.

Please stay tuned to find out what we uncover.

Time to Write

TimeToWrite1Today’s writers contend with distractions inconceivable to writers of the past. It has almost become pat to discuss the diversions inherent in living in our modern, digitally connected world. But these problems of instant gratification and endless attention shifting are even more lethal to the creative than they are to the average citizen.

The writing process requires a lot of space and silence, though that isn’t always immediately apparent. Writers are urged to read–read often and read the greats–and this is good advice. An hour with The Plague will certainly serve your craft better than an hour of watching cat videos. (No offense–I’m a total cat person!) But even carefully curating our information diets is not enough to protect our writing life.

Writers must also push back against over-scheduling and the pervasive, toxic level of busyness lauded by our society. If not, our minds and hearts will not have the resources to amalgamate whole worlds, or drink in new images, or index precise vocabulary for later use.

And not only is our culture generally hostile to the kind of deep reflection necessary for writing, it literally devalues creative endeavors–after all, writing is a gainful career for only a fraction of pursuants. So you can see the kind of conviction necessary to create a regular writing practice.

So how does a novelist stay focused on such an enduring project?

Like anything else, the desire to write must be a powerful one if the writer is to stay on task. I joke often that I only write because I can’t not-write. Not writing makes me cranky, to use a very scientific term. There is a kind of creative constipation that sets in any time I step away from the page for more than a couple of days. The mental hurdle to starting again grows in proportion to the time spent away. Eventually, I find myself sitting in front of my computer screen, hopeless that I will ever regain the ease of my own voice. (It does come back, if only after painful hours of working through the stock sentences and lame ideas that have built up inside my mental pipes. There is no shortcut for this, unfortunately.)

Even with this knowledge, I still go through periods of falling away from my daily writing practice. Sometimes I self-sabotage a project that is nearly completed. Sometimes I just allow the overgrowth of my life to cover and consume the time I’ve allotted for writing. Sometimes, through no fault of my own, my writing time gets eclipsed by other, more immediate needs.

In these times, when I feel the need to reset the boundaries of my writing life and reinstate the inner guard who takes my writing seriously, it is helpful for me to remember the advice to “do your own work first.” For me that means that I will answer emails in the afternoon, but I will write in the morning. I will read articles and books at night, but I will write in the morning. I will critique for my writing partners on schedule, but I will write my daily allotment of my own manuscript first.

The writing simply has to matter more than the other stuff. No one can give you that determination or discipline. You must earn it through careful observation of yourself when you are not writing, and truthful examination of all the pieces of your life and what purpose they serve. Use a felt sense of your own mortality for a scale. After all, the ultimate deadline will befall each of us eventually.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes about writing, from the late Zen Buddhist teacher and author, Alan Watts:

“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.”

Your writing matters. How do you make time for it?

Plumbing the Depths of Your Own Life

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In a recent chapter of Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit he talked about a phenomenon he calls “burning the raft at both ends.” By which he means, consuming one’s own life experiences in the service of one’s writing. According to Block, you can use up your life. You can run out of experiences. You can write through your life faster than you can live it.

I’m vested in believing he is wrong about this.

I write from my own life. Maybe it’s because I come out of a poetic tradition. Or maybe I was drawn to confessional poetry, in particular, out of a compulsion to use my own life experiences in the service of my writing.

Part of gaining skill in writing has been learning how to do this more skillfully—to take the emotional kernel, the essence of my own experiences, and of the social and psychological realities I know intimately, and allow that essence to sprout circumstances for my characters that are not so easily traceable to my own life. In part, I do this to avoid libel charges, sure. But I also do it—like most writers—to protect the innocent, or at least the loved.

But as I have expounded before, I write as one vehicle toward self-knowledge. Writing without explicit self-examination is impossible for me.

I happen to believe that human beings are infinitely complex. That the material in any one human life is inexhaustible and ever-deepening. I was listening to a podcast by the New York Public Library yesterday. In it the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard seeks to dispel the rumors that people with good childhoods can’t be writers. That well-adjusted, ordinary folk have nothing to write about. He describes himself as such a person who was lucky enough—and as a writer unlucky enough—to have supportive, well-adjusted parents and no major traumas. And he talks about learning, through the works of such writers as Flannery O’Connor, that every human life is engaging and interesting if you zoom in close enough.

Frankly, I don’t trust writers who claim not to write from their own experience. Maybe they don’t write from their own experience in such an obvious way. Maybe they use persona. Maybe they write science fiction or supernatural horror or murder mystery. Maybe they haven’t  personally experienced taking someone’s life but their hero is a serial killer. I would argue that even that person is writing from their own experience—maybe from their Jungian shadow side—maybe it’s unconscious. But to write that character in a compelling way they must be in touch with the human impulse to violence (whether expressed or unexpressed) in themselves. We each have it, after all.

We each have the capacity for all human emotions and psychological experiences. The entirety of your novel must spring from your own mind, which has been shaped by your experiences. That’s part of the mystery of writing. Somehow all of that stuff is in you. “You contain multitudes,” as Walt Whitman said.

So can you burn the raft entirely before you reach the shore? I would argue that you cannot. You have no choice but to keep living while you are writing. The raft keeps getting built as you are burning it. And as you refine your craft, perhaps you are also refining your attention, and you will see things in your life you never saw before. And they will be revealed to you through the act of writing itself.

What do you think, Agile Writers? Feel free to make a case for the opposite in the comments below!

Leaving Space for the Reader

06-the-white-room-6We entered into a productive discussion last week at Agile Writers. It centered on the problems inherent in writing (or acting, performing, producing) for an audience of peers rather than an audience of. . . people.

The topic arose because we are making our way through Lawrence Block’s classic on writerly craft, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. Block’s chapter, which served as the launchpad for our discussion last week, was entitled “Never Apologize, Never Explain.” In it, he states bluntly that the sort of temperament that draws a writer to writing–the amount of “ego” and “self-confidence” (Block’s words) needed to write– often brings with it a desire for control. This includes a desire to control the reader’s experience.

Obviously, this is fraught. Any time we attempt to control or manipulate another’s experience, I would argue, we have overstepped our bounds–we have done both too much and too little in the creation of our art. Too much in the sense of condescending to the reader, telling him or her how to feel and think about what we have made. And too little, in that it takes far more skill to master the art of leaving space for the reader’s own experience.

I am egregiously guilty of this. I find myself over-writing, particularly in a first draft, as I am explaining the work to myself as well as eventual readers. I think this is a necessary phase of mastering any craft. I’ve never written a novel before. This process is a long exercise in on-the-job-training. So I have to begin with both an absence of skill and a distrust of what abilities I do possess.

The real delight and craft comes in the subsequent cullings–the adventures in trimming the fat from my work, leaving only what is essential, true and beautiful (not merely aesthetically pleasing). This is a sort of tuning process. We strike each scene, sentence, each word with a kind of internal tuning fork. We ask it “are you essential?” and wait for the answer. If not, we break it off and let it go. The more we listen, the better we get at divining the difference between the essential and the discardable. I am reminded of the famous Faulkner quote:

“I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”

The second place I have encountered this idea in recent weeks was while listening to an interview with the author Junot Diaz on the New York Public Library Podcast. Diaz’s assessment of the essential mistake of contemporary novice writers is that they don’t leave adequate room for the reader.

Diaz himself takes this “leaving room” principle all the way to the level of genre. In the interview, he discussed his work The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which could be categorized as a loose collection of interrelated short stories, or a novel. It mixes languages, moves nimbly through time and space, switches from first to third person points of view, employs ample footnotes, all in an inevitable attempt to disorient the reader in precisely the way one might be disoriented as a part of the immigrant experience.

The result is lots of room for a reader to interpret and glean from the book different understandings. It isn’t anarchy though; Diaz is clear that Oscar Wao is about how it feels to be an immigrant, to live under a dictator and in a democracy, to grapple with masculinity as it is represented in two different cultures. These themes are undeniable and so vital that they could not be left to chance, even while elements as basic as genre and narrative voice are fluid and loosely defined.

What is most interesting to me about Diaz’s statements in the interview, is his diagnosis of the origin of this lack of ability to leave space for the reader. According to Diaz, who is a creative writing professor himself at MIT, the root of the problem is that writers are emerging more and more in a context of other writers. They go to conferences to talk to writers, they enter MFA programs to spend years in the company of other writers–both their peers and their mentors. Inevitably, the echo chamber this produces runs the risk of promoting the mastery of craft over originality, vitality and popular appeal. The writers of today, Diaz notes, are simply out of touch with readers.

Block outlined the crux of this more than twenty years ago: “A short story or novel constitutes a subtly different experience for every person who reads it, simply because each reader brings a different perspective and background to bear upon what he reads[. . .]The best we can do is write as carefully and as honestly as we can and let the reader make of our work what he will. If we write well, enough people will get enough of the message.”

So, who are readers, and how do we write for them? This issue strikes me as an elitist, ivory tower problem. Looking around the room at my fellow writers collected on a Wednesday evening, I see less danger of squeezing out the reader. We are not locked in higher education environments. We are chemists, teachers, parents, partners, and writers. One foot in the ordinary world, and one foot in the writing world.

Perhaps we are just putting our finger on the widening fault line between literary and genre novels. Those of us who seek to straddle the two (I would include myself here) face an increasingly difficult task. And those of us who unabashedly aim for salability and readability in our works need feel less ashamed. By shirking the masses, maybe the highest literary MFA-driven, conference-attending, adjunct-teaching, upper echelon of writers who write for other writers will go the way of the dinosaurs?

Lest I come off as too harshly critical of MFA programs, writing absolutely is a set of skills that can be taught. At their best, MFA programs are designed to do just this. To foster confidence in the execution of craft that can lead to wildness and vulnerability in the subject matter. But the ability to see and convey truth, to speak to a reader and move him or her without over-explaining and condescending, is an art. And art is stifled by closed environments and over-valued rule books. A writer, through trial and error, could perhaps land on the best crafting of stories. But given only the lessons of craft, and sealed off from the larger world, a writer risks going deaf to the murmurations of truth, the concerns and motivations of her readers.

The writer, if she is going to be a lightening rod for truth, and not merely a wordsmith, must trace the inevitable cycle of seers and sages of every stripe. Time alone on the mountaintop for the act of creation must be balanced by trips to the proverbial village, where the work is gifted to the world and the writer can drink in the cultural garb necessary to make her work relevant in contemporary society.

The acquisition of technical prowess is a slow and steady climb balanced by the grounding of our shared human experience. When you spend time in the world, and come to know your reader intimately, you will no longer underestimate their abilities or your own. You will leave space for their experience, and they will reward you with their readership.

The Split Climax

merging-lanes-aheadOne of the things I teach in my seminar on The Agile Writer Method is that the climax is the seventh and final turning point in the story. There is the classic climax where the hero defeats the villain and solves the main goal of the story. But there other ways to handle a climax. One of them is what I call the Spit Climax.

In most stories, we get to the sixth stage which I call “The Gathering Storm.” In it, the hero gathers their friends and makes a new plan to get the Main Goal. This usually follows the “Death or Disappointment” moment where getting the main goal seems impossible.

If you look at the climax of the Pixar film Toy Story, there comes a moment where Woody and Buzz are in the clutches of the evil kid “Sid Vicious.” Sid is known for destroying his toys and mangling them into fearsome forms. Sid has strapped a firework rocket to Buzz’s back and is getting ready to light the rocket and send Buzz to his ultimate demise.

Meanwhile, Woody has gathered all of Sid’s toys and created a plan to save Buzz. Just as Sid is about to light the rocket, the other toys break the primary rule of toy-being, and rise up like zombies to confront Sid. Sid is terrified of the approaching toys and goes running to his room to hide.

This is what I call “Vanquishing the Villain.” This is the first half of the split climax. The second half is called “Resolving the Main Goal.” Woody and the mangled toys have scared Sid straight and saved Buzz. But that’s not their ultimate goal. Their Main Goal is to return to Timmy before he moves away. If Timmy moves away before they can get home, they won’t know where he lives and they’ll be lost forever.

In the next scene, Woody and Buzz work together to chase after the moving truck. They hop in a toy car and are pulled along by the slinky dog. But that plan fails and Woody realizes the only solution is to light Buzz’s firework rocket, which is still tied to his back. When he lights it, Buzz opens his wings and flies just like the real Buzz Lightyear might. After some thrilling moments, Woody unties the rocket and the two buddies fall through the moon roof in Timmy’s car and they land in his box of toys. Timmy looks down and exclaims that he found his toys which must have been there the whole time. Thus resolving the Main Goal of returning our heroes to Timmy.

The great thing about the Split Climax is that the reader gets two moments of relief, or “catharsis.” In the first half, Vanquishing of the Villain, the reader experiences the relief that the hero is safe and the villain has been dispatched. In the second half, the hero resolves the Main Goal and the reader gets a second feeling of satisfaction. This gives the reader two cliff-hanging moments in one. It’s a great way to end your story.

But wait, there’s more. The Split Climax can also work in reverse. A lot of Marvel movies incorporate the Split Climax. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the heroes in the story are fighting a horde of robots who have managed to raise the capital of Sokovia high above the Earth. The city is falling and if it crashes to Earth it will cause a global extinction. To make a long story short, the Avengers land the city safely back to Earth. Then the “Vision” character destroys Ultron.

In this case, the Main Goal (saving the city and hence the world) is resolved first. And Vanquishing the Villain is accomplished second. As you can see, the Split Climax works both ways.

So, the next time you plot out your climax, remember that there are other options besides a showdown with the villain that resolves all the problems in one scene. Sometimes you can get twice the bang for the buck when you use a Split Climax.