Writing Advice from Auntie Mara

by Mara

This has been an exciting year for me, full of surprises. Perhaps most surprising is that people have started to ask me for advice on writing. It seems a bit like asking a first-time pregnant woman, “What’s it like to raise a toddler?” I’m only in my second trimester when it comes to writing: I have yet to be published in book form and I still mix up the subjunctive “were” and “was”. Besides, there’s not much I can say that George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, and so many others haven’t already said (make writing a habit, cut any unnecessary words or lines, make every character want something, etc.) But I’ll try to share some of the advice and guidelines that have helped me. 1

Don’t put it on the Internet.

At least, don’t immediately put it on the Internet. Learn how to write first, how to make mistakes and fix them, how to write what Anne Lamott rightly calls “shitty first drafts.” You need to learn to write for yourself before you write for others.

I long resisted getting a blog: friends would read my funny Facebook statuses and ask why I wasn’t blogging. My response was always the same: “Because I want to be a writer, not a blogger.” Pretentious as I might have sounded, I stand by what I said, because I believe blogging is different than writing. Blogging is something one does for instant gratification (and I’m not “above” this, look at how often I tweet), while writing is a long, often difficult process that is ultimately more rewarding for you and the person reading it. Your raw, unfiltered status updates might be funny to you and some friends, but the rest of the world won’t like it or care. Coffee grounds and water do not make coffee: it must be filtered.

As I’ve said, I take a lot of time with each post. I always reread and edit several times before I post, and often I’ll run the idea by a friend or family member first. I have some entries I will never post, simply because they’re too personal or just not very well-written. This has saved me an enormous amount of grief and frustration, and I’m sure the people reading it appreciate it more, too. It’s true that putting one’s writing on the internet can get one “noticed,” but my suggestion is to use the internet as a springboard. (Most of my friends who’ve achieved some measure of internet celebrity have done this, going on to write books or make films.) Let it propel you into real life.

So, learn to write first. Then write something. Then re-write it. Then read it. Then re-read it. Then put it online, or don’t.

Read books.

Read the kind of books you want to write, and read books you would never want to read. Read books about growing up in inner-city Detroit if you grew up on a farm in Texas. Read books about ranching in Montana if you live in Paris. Read C.S. Lewis if you’re an atheist and Philip Pullman if you’re a Christian. Read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy if your favorite book is Twilight. Read Twilight… well, to know how terrible it really is. You will learn what you like in writing and what you can steal. You will also learn which tropes, cliches, and clams to avoid. And do not write if you do not read!

Read books on writing.

Everyone should have a copy of The Elements of Style. My other suggestions would be Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit (which is not specifically about writing, but is still helpful). Read what your favorite authors have said about writing,  so you can know what to do, and read what your least favorite authors have said about writing, so you can know what not to do.

Take a playwriting class.

Even if you don’t like plays, even if you’ve never seen a play, 2 take a class.

1.) It will improve your dialogue. You will develop an ear for what sounds natural, and, more importantly, what sounds unnatural.

2.) It will teach you to be economical. In a good contemporary play, there are no unnecessary characters: every character wants something and tries to go after it. If something can be said in one line instead of three, it will be cut down. I have a suspicion that this economical approach started because theatermakers have limited funds and time; however, it always works to the play’s advantage.

Remember that there is no such thing as straight comedy or straight drama.

Comedy, by its nature, has an element of truth and pain in it: the recipe for humor is often said to be “tragedy plus time.” Likewise, I don’t believe it’s possible to write something dramatic that doesn’t have any kind of “comic relief.” 3 It’s like pumpkin: pureed pumpkin by itself is bland or bitter. Add sugar and spices, though, and suddenly it’s rich and delicious and perfectly balanced.

Be aware that fiction writing can be as revealing as nonfiction.

Perhaps it’s even more revealing, because it’s done inadvertently. Nonfiction writers have control over what they are revealing about themselves, while fiction writers are drawing from their own imagination, their own experiences and dreams and fears. I probably couldn’t tell you what David Sedaris’s wildest dreams are, but I could tell you Stephenie Meyer’s. 4

Learn how to give and receive feedback.

This was perhaps the most useful skill I learned in college. My professors (especially Marleen Pennison, Jeni Mahoney, and Tomi Tsunoda) taught us how to give feedback even before they taught us how to write or direct. 5 “Start with what you see and how it makes you feel,” “Separate the form from the content,” “Do not problem-solve for other people,” and so many other phrases became mantras for me, and they remain so today. Learning how to give constructive feedback will allow you to help others, and learning how to receive feedback will make you more efficient at editing your work. Additionally, you will want people reading your work to critique it constructively: receiving feedback and criticism from one who does not know how to give it can be like standing nude in front of a group of strangers and having them go over every inch of your body with a cheese grater.

As important as this is, I have decided to share with you one of my secret weapons — consider it a Nondenominational Winter Holiday 6 gift. With her permission, I give you Jeni Mahoney’s Guidelines for Feedback.

 

PLAYWRITING

GUIDELINES FOR TALKING ABOUT IT

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots. (Frank A. Clark, writer)

WHEN YOU ARE THE ONE GETTING FEEDBACK…

  • Be careful of responding too quickly, or of explaining yourself. This is not an opportunity to explain what you intended, it is a chance to find out what others understood, felt or were confused about.
  • Any critique that starts with the phrase “you know what would be funny…” or “you know what would be neat” can be ignored – unless the person can tell you why it would be “funny” or “neat” and it fits in with your vision.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask someone why or how they got something unexpected from your work.
  • If someone tells you what they think should happen, ask why.
  • Even the most bizarre and hurtful critique may contain a grain of truth.
  • Don’t take anything personally. If the other person gets personal, bring it back to the work.
  • Sometimes strange questions or comments expose places where you inadvertently led the audience down a misleading path.
  • You don’t have to answer anyone’s questions.
  • When you’re talking you’re not listening.


WHEN YOU ARE GIVING FEEDBACK:

  • Avoid phrases like “when you said,” or “when you did” when you’re really talking about what the characters said and did.
  • Avoid generalizing: i.e., “someone wouldn’t do…” whatever. The issue is whether this particular character would do or say something.
  • If you feel like you must give a suggestion of what might happen or what a character might do – give three different ones.
  • If you find yourself thinking you didn’t “like” something, ask yourself – why? Was it the dialogue, the situation, the motivation, the story-line? Be as specific as possible.
  • Questions are always better than statements, but don’t expect any answers.
  • IT IS NOT YOUR JOB TO FIX THE PLAY!
  • Remember: mention what you like.
  • Remember: the purpose of giving feedback is to help the playwright expand and refine her/his ideas about their work.

EXAMPLES OF COMMON COMMENTS:

“I didn’t like it when you said that the cow was too short to play basketball.”

1. Try not to address the playwright with “you said” – remember, the character was talking, not the playwright.

2. “I didn’t like it” – here is an opportunity to ask yourself a question – why? Why didn’t you like it? Was it that you didn’t believe it, or did the story take a turn that you weren’t prepared for. Maybe you didn’t understand why the character was saying what he was saying – and you didn’t like not understanding.

So, how might we say that differently?

“I was confused when the lead character said that the cow was too short to play basketball. I thought the play was about soccer.”

HERE IS ANOTHER:

“Your dialogue was really bad.”

1. Again, we don’t put the character’s words into the playwright’s mouth.

2. Why was it “bad”? What does “bad” mean? Unbelievable? Confusing?

So how might we say it differently?

“I didn’t believe the dialogue between the cat and the moose – I didn’t believe they would know what Pac Man was, and when the moose was cursing I kept having to ask myself if a moose would really use that kind of language so I was distracted.”

AND FINALLY:

“I liked when you made them dance. What did it mean?”

1. Okay, this is a trick example. It’s a fine comment – and bonus points for asking a question, but one might want to refer the play, rather than the playwright…and expand a bit…

How might we say it differently?

“I liked it when the moose and the cat danced, it was touching and funny at the same time, but I wasn’t sure how it advanced the play.”

(Use these wisely. Don’t thank me, thank Jeni Mahoney!)

Notes:

  1. I imagine that this will be something of a series, something like Advice from Auntie Mara (which I also need to update). Thus, this post is not in any way a final list of writing advice: there will be more.
  2. This is possible if you grew up someplace like Los Angeles. I didn’t know the difference between “musicals” and “straight plays” until I was in my teens. Meanwhile, all my college friends who grew up in or around New York City went stage door-hopping every weekend.
  3. And those who try to write something wholly dramatic often find their work slipping into camp.
  4. Though writing skill and lack thereof might have something to do with that…
  5. Though I wouldn’t say they really “taught” us how to write and direct; rather, they guided us. But perhaps I’m getting pretentious again. Where’s my “You’re Being Pretentious” jar?
  6. Or Summer Holiday, for my Southern Hemisphere readers!