Sunday, January 27, 2013

Critique Groups

The way we, as writers, first knew that we were writers was from the comments of others – first our grade school teachers and later, in high school and college, our peers. I suppose if no one had ever encouraged us, none of us were ever have “become” writers. I think that’s why it’s so hard for me – even after a career of having my non-fiction work edited and worked over – to have my fiction critiqued by other writers. I care about their opinions. Perhaps, even, their opinions could show me that I’ve just been fooling myself: I’m no writer. Critique groups are worth it, though. We write to be read, and it really helps to have readers, knowledgeable readers who have struggled through the process of putting words on paper themselves, tell you what they think. My novel has improved so much from the input of my two critique groups. Thanks, guys!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

More Research

Well, my research kicked into a different gear last week. I started attending a local schizophrenia support group. At first, the woman at the agency was a little dubious, concerned about whether my hoped-for novel would perpetuate stereotypes about mental illness. The person with schizophrenia is my protagonist. He is a Mormon missionary. When he starts his mission, his schizophrenia begins manifesting itself. He hears voices and sees things – both of which he takes as “revelations” from God. The novel tells the story of how he and the local church deal with his revelations and how he ends up getting treatment/meds and learning to live with schizophrenia. I’m not writing this book to “advocate” for schizophrenia – like some sort of “AfterSchool Special” -- but I want it to be highly accurate. I told her, yes, I know how people have many misunderstandings about mental illness. (Twenty years ago, when I had started taking my meds for OCD, I had to get over that stigma just to be willing to take psychotropic drugs. “Only crazy people take medicines for their bran,” I told myself. As an aside, when I first started taking the meds, clomipromene, it wasn’t legal in the US, so I had to drive to White Rock, B.C., every so often and then smuggle the meds back over the border.) Anyway, she asked to meet me first, which I did. Then she let me sit in on a support group meeting. It was amazing. It gave me insights that reading books never could. The people there talked about the “voices” they hear and their struggles to maintain sane-ness. I plan on going each week. Stay tuned for more updates.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

I Hate Prompts

Cord, short rope, hatchet & Watering Can
Photo by Mark Monlux

I know that the writing part of "writing a novel" is going to be tough. Leaders in my writing group keep telling me, “Just because you’ve spent your career writing non-fiction, don’t think you can automatically write fiction effortlessly” – and I believe them. I just want to get started writing. I don’t want to do any writing “exercises” or “prompts.” The photo above reminds me of a writing prompt. My friend, Mark Monlux, sent it to me because he wanted to teach me how to post a photo on my blog. The photo rubbed me the wrong way. I have no patience for writing prompts or writing "exercises." Reason being: I already know I'm creative; I already know I know how to string words together. (I hope that doesn't sound smug. I don’t mean it to be. I've just written a ton of stuff -- probably 20,000 dramatic non-fiction/feature articles in my career. For the best primer on writing Dramatic Non-Fiction, see Writing for Story by Jon Franklin.) What I need help in is story structure. That's where I feel lost. I've read a number of books of creating plots and they all leave me flat. I think what I'm going to do is take my writing group out for pizza -- my treat -- and ask them to help me brainstorm a plot from my premise. The other not, we created a three-act plot structure for an idea our instructor brought to class. It was fun -- and pretty darn quick. For $100 for pizza and beer, I could end up with a plot outline. That's a bargain.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Research, Cont.

Now I’m reading The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. It chronicles a study that was done on three schizophrenics in 1959 – right about the time I was born, as a matter of fact. All these of these men thought they were Jesus Christ. The purpose of the study is to see what these men do when they meet each other. The book unfolds over the course of twenty-five months. The researcher/author assembles his protagonists daily, at first with the intention of bringing about a collision of their “primitive beliefs,” in the hopes of shocking them into some kind of recognition of the truth. I’m about halfway through the book. The three men look forward to their meetings, but each is convinced that the other two are incorrect in their self-assessment. That is, contrary to their strongly held belief, they in fact are not Christ. Each thinks the other two men are deluded, in other words. (One of the men tells another one, “You are just an instrumental God.” That’s crazy talk.) It’s interesting to see these men deal with the cognitive dissonance they encounter through their meetings. Cognitive dissonance will feature in my novel, as the protagonist has his “world view” shaken.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Some of My Research

Next novel, I’m not going to tell anyone “I’m writing a novel” until I’m actually writing the novel – that is, putting prose on the page. The problem is, I’ve been telling folks for months that “I’m writing a novel,” yet I haven’t written Word One. It’s all about planning and research now. Right now, I’m studying schizophrenia. I’ve been reading technical books, memoirs, anything that will give me insight into the disease. It’s been great. (If you want a mind-blowing read, check out Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. It was written in 1900, before the term “schizophrenia” had even been coined. Back then, it was just referred to as “paranoia.”) Meanwhile, I’ve made an appointment to sit in on some group therapy sessions for local schizophrenics. I hope to make a friend there so I can try to understand how his brain works, or doesn’t. (I say “his” because I’ll probably seek out a male, as my schizophrenic, Mormon protagonist is male.) Next, my Mormonism research. This is going to be tougher. I’m actually going to try to start attending a Mormon church. I’ll tell them, “I’m trying to learn about Mormonism,” which won’t be a lie. They’ll just interpret that to mean, “I’m considering joining the Mormon church” – when it actually means, “I’m writing a book about a schizophrenic Mormon missionary.” Were I to tell them the whole truth, they’d stand bolt upright and declaim, “I cast thee out!” One thing I’ve found is that Mormons are very touchy about their religion – or about people who criticize their religion. They call them “anti-Mormons.” (Early on, I was trying to find out if anyone else had already written a book with my premise: a Mormon missionary who thinks the symptoms of his schizophrenia – hearing voices and seeing “visions” – are actually from God, not his broken brain. I sent an email to the editor of the BYU student newspaper and asked him if he had ever heard of a book like that. He said, ‘No I haven’t – and I certainly wouldn’t buy it!”) I’m not anti-Mormon. I’m just trying to tell a good story. But before I get ’round to actually telling that story, I have a ton of research to do. So, no, I’m not really writing a novel. Yet. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Believing in Your Book

The other night, we all had our first dinner out with my daughter’s new boyfriend. Actually, her first boyfriend. So, of course, my daughter has already told him that her Dad is fascinating because he’s writing a novel. So, of course, the first question out of his mouth is “What’s your book about?” No matter how many times I tell people the fascinating premise for my novel—Mormonism, schizophrenia, time travel, magic mushrooms, sex in strange, dangerous places – I get a blank stare. I found it took me five minutes just to define terms for the boyfriend. First off, I had to explain what makes Mormon missionaries tick. Then I had to explain the symptoms of schizophrenia. (I have never been Mormon or schizophrenic, and don’t plan to be, so . . . so much for "writing what you know"!) So, after about five minutes, I had laid out the gist of the book for him, and he still gave me a blank, though polite, stare. (Can one stare politely? He did.) “Sounds interesting,” or something like that is what he said. Like I said, that’s the typical reaction when I explain the premise of my book, which should give me pause – and it does. But, in all the books I’m reading about writing your first novel, they say to find an idea you're passionate about. I’m passionate about this book – but I realize it may be awful tough to “pull off.” So . . . I’ve decided that I’m going to press on, following my passion. If I get to the end of the second draft, and it’s still un-sellable, I will chalk it up to experience.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Second Thoughts

Maybe all simple writing isn’t good writing. In keeping with the post above, I decided to test a section from the King of Simple Writing, Ernest Hemingway. (The New York Times said Hemingway’s prose was “lean, hard” and “athletic.”) Here’s the first paragraph of The Sun Also Rises:

Robert Cohn was once a middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton. There was a certain inner comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him, although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym. He was Spider Kelly’s star pupil. Spider Kelly taught all his young gentlemen to box like featherweights, no matter whether they weighed one hundred and five or two hundred and five pounds. But it seemed to fit Cohn. He was really very fast. He was so good that Spider promptly overmatched him and got his nose permanently flattened. This increased Cohn’s distaste for boxing, but it gave him a certain satisfaction of some strange sort, and it certainly improved his nose. In his last year at Princeton he read too much and took to wearing spectacles. I never met any one of this class who remembered him. They did not even remember that he was middleweight boxing champion.

Here are the scores:

Flesch Reading Ease Score:  68.9

Percentage of passive sentences: 15%

Grade-level: 7.8

So, apart from having a few too many passive constructions, Ernest met all of my criteria for simple – and therefore “good” – writing. However, I found this book to be the most pointless book I’ve ever read. (I did finish it, though, which was better treatment than All the Pretty Horses received. See post above.) But, the guy won the Nobel Prize, for Pete’s sake. Once again, what do I know? I should be shot for even standing in judgment against the guy.

I just know what I like.