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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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Showing Can Be So Telling

In my writing group’s weekly call, I had a breakthrough about writing detailed scenes, an A-ha/Duh moment that allowed me to internalize something I’ve known but didn’t quite know-know.

Elizabeth had us select a character and put him/her in a setting that the writer knows but the character doesn’t. I wrote a scene in which one of the characters in my novel comes to visit me at work. I called up all the complaints I’ve heard about the space: it’s in a basement; it’s hard to find; it’s ugly and depressing; it’s hard to get into my office because the door collides with another door. (I’m going to share; don’t diss.)

The director’s office is in the basement far from the stairs through a set of doors and I miss the sign telling me where I need to go, finding only bathrooms one way and a bunch of seemingly forgotten books the other way. I turn around and walk through the first open door. A student reads at a table not noticing me at first, so I say hello, louder than I mean to. The room is small with boloney-colored walls. There’s a piece of equipment, an old compact CD player maybe, stuck to the ceiling, which feels low. I reach up but to my surprise can’t touch it, even give a few swipes to make sure. The student looks up and sees me waving my arm above my head. “Is everything alright, sir? Can I help you with something?” “Looking for James Black.” “He’s in his office.” She points, and I look to where she points, but all I see is a woman in an office, stepping around her desk, approaching me. She, the admin asst, asks to help me and apologizes for not noticing. I understand given that her desk is back in a corner sort of behind a pole. Mr. Black is located in yet another office off her office. She checks to make sure Mr. Black is available, then steps out of the way. Her office door bonks into his office door. There’s enough clearance, but it’s a bit precarious getting by them.

Most of the details came together pretty well considering we only wrote for a few minutes. But Elizabeth pointed out that “[A] student” in the third sentence isn’t descriptive, especially compared to the other details. I got what she meant. My character might be able to infer that the person in that room is a student, but why would someone in a new space jump to that conclusion? The character is just taking in sensory information. Processing the information leads to more information gathering (e.g., is the ceiling low? can he get past the weird doors?).

FYI, I decided to revise “[A] student” as “[A] young woman in a lumpy aqua sweater.” For the sake of the exercise, I think the change offers more information. If I decided to use the scene, I’d play with the colors and what they suggest about mood. I’d probably also change the description of the object on the ceiling. It’s just a wireless router, and although it does look like a compact CD player, that image seems confusingly specific.

The point is not simply to show rather than tell, but to show in a way that develops character along with setting. In this scene, the character isn’t quite ready make assumptions without testing them, which the reader probably appreciates, being as new to the setting as the character is. A different character would take a different approach, perhaps bringing more knowledge to the experience or comparing this setting to a similar setting. Showing would still be important, but it might involve more telling.

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To the Photographer I Inadvertently Offended

When I said your portrait of me was better than my driver’s license photo, I meant it as a compliment. Really. It was the best I could do at the moment.

Getting my picture taken freaks me out a little. Not so much that I melt down in a public display with onlookers shouting, “Dammit, man, get help!” It’s more of a mild anxiety. When someone points a camera at me, I evade visual capture any way possible. I turn away. I make a face. I break the photographer’s knee caps. Whatever it takes to get free.

Most of the time the fear lies dormant. I forget that it bothers me. So when I saw the bulletin offering employees free sittings for head shots, I thought it was something I should probably get done. If nothing else, on the off chance that fate provides me with unintended fame, CNN might use the professionally taken portrait instead of one of the snapshots tagged in various friends’ Facebook photo albums. Realizing this, I made a note of the time and place.

As I approached the improvised photography studio, I felt the urge to stop and reverse direction–not by turning around, but by simply backing away, as if bumping ass-first into people or walls would be less conspicuous than casually turning around. Continue reading

My Internal Editor Is a Big Nag

Referring to internal editors in my last post made me realize that mine has been sabotaging me lately. Ze tells me that none of the manuscripts I’ve submitted in the past few months is going to be accepted, and adds that if I really plan to submit more in the next few weeks, then that’s up to me, but why would I want to waste my time on that when nobody really gives a shit about what I have to say. Of course, I’m also wasting time on this blogging; ze suggests that perhaps that’s the reason for my failure to get anywhere close to finishing the rough draft of my novel this summer, as I had so ambitiously planned to do.

So, basically, my internal editor is a big nag who assumes that time is a vessel to be filled and that goals (must) never change.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been feeling very rebellious. As usual, I’ve been focusing on what I haven’t done rather than what I’ve accomplished. Not that I buy the internal editor’s bullshit, but I don’t quite have the energy to challenge zim on my own. A few friends have heard my call for help, which I communicated in the form of whining, and they patiently let me talk it through. I know what to do in these situations. If this were happening to you, I’d pump you up to help you externalize all the negative messages you’ve internalized over the years. My friends helped me get that kind of critical distance. (Don’t worry; I’m not going to start singing, “You’ve got to have friends,” or anything like that. Yeesh.)

True, I could be further along with the rough draft, but I was never going to finish it this summer. That was a ridiculous goal that desperately needed to be revised. I need to push past all of this, finish revising another piece, send it out, and get ready to send out another while I keep the novel going in the background. That’s reasonable. It’s a short-term goal that invites momentum. For now it’s all I can do.

Insert Keyboard Solo Here

It must take some guts to establish oneself as a songwriter. Even songs that are considered artistic achievements are often difficult to take seriously, especially backup lyrics. The “woo-woos” and “bay-bees” sound just right, conveying feeling in quasi-words transported by sound. You’ve got to be bold to write them down then sing them while strumming your acoustic guitar and insisting, “Oh yeah, this will totally work.”

A great song breaks new ground while drawing on listeners’ expectations of what a great song is. If it were completely new, it wouldn’t reach many people. That’s not to say that great songs must have mainstream appeal. But a great song should communicate, otherwise it’s a secret code designed to obfuscate meaning–a great mystery.

This is probably true for any kind of writing. It’s hard to strike a balance between connecting with an audience and retaining your uniqueness. Sometimes I write lines and my internal editor calls me out. “That’s just gratuitous,” xe says (my internal editor is trans). “That line fits, but just barely. You wrote it to show off, didn’t you? You think people are going to laugh with you. Trust me, you’ll get attention, but not the kind you’re after.”

Continue reading

Go Praise Yourself

Confession: I like some of my writing. Sometimes as I revise, I enjoy what I’m reading even though I’ve written it. I even like some of the stuff I wrote a long time ago. Not all of it. As with any writer’s work, I read my own critically, especially the personal stuff, concerned I’ve crossed the line between healthy exhibitionism and neurotic self-disclosure. But that’s the point, isn’t it, of developing skills as a writer: to write interesting things that people will read willingly and not only because they have assigned you to write them?

Writers tend to throw their younger writing selves under buses, and they do it willingly. “Oh, god, I can’t believe that story got published,” they might say. “It’s terrible. I hadn’t found my voice.” Occasionally, they go further, telling you how much their writing used to suck and how hearing it read makes them want to jab their eardrums with a fountain pen. You wonder if you will soon witness some Greek-tragedy-style violence and hope their self-hatred doesn’t take a sudden turn outward. The self-deprecation creates a cycle, leading to the next line: “My work is much stronger now.” There is usually a pause, and sometimes a self-conscious chuckle. “At least I hope my work is stronger now.” Is this their main point? Or are you supposed to say something to ensure their personal drama ends happily?

Maybe they just want to be honest; in their search for truth, they know they are not exempt. But they’re also revealing insecurities, which can be an admirable thing to do, but to do so in response to praise of their work is unsettling, selfish, and, well, a little rude.

To be fair, I have done this kind of thing myself, Continue reading

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