Every Wednesday afternoon for the past 6 years, my living room has filled with a rotating group of about a dozen women who would once have been described as "Lady Writers." They range in age from 32 to 83; and they write in every genre ? one is just finishing a YA novel about modern-day Wotans, another is penning a memoir about the death of her young husband (which amazingly, always makes us laugh), yet another is turning out essays about being a girl geek. For two hours, we drink tea (Moroccan mint, Darjeeling, Lapsang Souchong for the brave), eat a large quantity of pound cake, and talk about writing.
These women are my students. Although over the years, I can't say whether I've given them more than they've given me. Writing is solitary work, and I'm convinced only the knowledge that they will be arriving, bringing me their latest pages and letting in the fresh air, forces me out of my pajamas and keeps me from turning Emma-Thompson-in-Stranger-Than-Fiction-weird.
Mostly, though, my students have taught me about writing. Studying their work has made me turn a more practiced eye on my own; and the process of telling them what I know about craft has made me clearer about it myself. It's also made me more likely to practice what I preach ? if only because they're going to notice if I don't. There's now a Wednesday evening group as well; and in the last year I've worked with a whole virtual world of writers through Line by Line, the literary editing business I started with another writing mom. It's thanks to these women (and sometimes men) who are willing to share their work that I even know 10 things about writing. 10 things I'll list here, as I'm imagining a lot of you are writers (see the excellent responses to Monday's exercise in writing historical sex). Feel free to share your own.
1) Always know what your main character wants ? even, as in the case of memoir or personal essay, if the main character is you. Something needs to be at stake for your character in every scene ? it's what gives a story momentum. I'm pretty anal when I write (actually, I'm pretty anal all the time), and I won't touch the keyboard until I've figured out exactly what my character wants at that precise moment in the story.
2) Every scene has a mood, and everything in that scene should contribute to that mood. Just as in poetry, where each word counts, each sensory detail, description, and image should work to evoke the mood you intend. Nothing you put in a scene should be arbitrary ? every word should count towards creating the overall tone.
3) Learn to manipulate your readers' emotions. We've all seen the ads of happy moviegoers coming out of the theater exclaiming, "I laughed, I cried!" It's the same with writing. Readers want to be moved emotionally when they read. And that takes a coolly calculating writer. My ex-husband, who is an actor, once told me how his acting teacher berated a student who had dissolved into tears during a performance, explaining, "It's not about making yourself cry, it's about making the audience cry."
4) Use dialogue. Everybody likes to eavesdrop. But don't have your characters blurt out all the subtext. People tend to talk around what they really mean. Rent yourself a few seasons of The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, and The Wire, and study the way the characters talk to each other.
5) Every scene should move the narrative forward. This is especially tricky when you're writing memoir (or historical fiction). With any luck, fiction writers make up only the scenes they need. But when you're writing memoir, you have to pick and choose from all the (very interesting, but occasionally off-point) events that have happened to you.
6) Don't let all the good stuff happen off-stage. Too often in the work of new writers, the good stuff (i.e. the big fight, the murder, the incredible sex) has already happened, and we have to hear about it second-hand from a character who was lucky enough to be there.
7) Flashbacks should only be used when they deepen the reader's understanding of the real-time scene. They should not be used to provide a whole lot of background information the author believes we should know. Given the choice, readers will opt to stay in the scene they're in, so you've got to have a good reason for pulling them out of it.
8) Resist the urge to rewrite your opening. I know, "Everything else will fall into place if I just get the beginning right." Thing is, you don't really know your beginning until you've written your ending. And if you keep tweaking those first few pages, you'll wind up hating them.
9) Good story always trumps good writing. Every time we open a book we go back to being little kids begging for a story. And all the "luminous" ? the most overused word in book reviewing ? writing in the world can't prop up an aimless (or missing) narrative. Of course, any book that gives you both good story and good writing ? for example, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay ? is truly a luminous thing.
10) Find yourself a writing group. One with deadlines. One filled with people whose writing you like. But never show your work to anyone whose feedback makes you less than eager to get back to work. Writing is hard enough.