Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cheese for Writers

Charlotte Firbank-King

There are hundreds of varieties of cheese, each made in different ways, just like stories are written in various ways. Then, within each “genre” of a particular cheese, there are even more differences. For example, one could have cream cheese with chives, garlic, or chili. In addition, cheeses require different conditions or times in which to mature to the point of being delicious.

All “real” cheeses are made from milk—just like all stories are made from words. Some cheeses, like ricotta or cream cheese, are easy and quick to make with milk and whatever you have in the kitchen—yet they still need sterile conditions. Ricotta also needs just the right temperature and length of heating time and the addition of lemon juice in order for curds to form. It also needs a dash of salt and then has to drain for the right amount of time with the correct type of cheese cloth to be perfect.

A short story or poem is like ricotta cheese. It also needs sterile conditions (a clear mind), the right temperature (creativity) to form the curd (idea). Then it requires the correct cheese cloth (editing) to drain out all the whey (typos, adjectives, etc.) until it tastes (story flows and sounds) delicious.

Hard cheeses like cheddar or parmesan, or softer ones like blue cheese or brie, are like full-length novels. They need more time, care, and attention to mature. They need special cultures (research). Airborne cultures (incorrect research info) must be kept out by means of perfect, protected conditions (researching the researched source). Every step in making these cheeses is meticulously executed (attention to every word and sentence). Temperature, humidity, and turning are all undertaken diligently (edited and re-edited—many times). The cheeses are monitored to avoid contamination (too much contradictory advice or negative feedback). When the cheese is mature, a cheese expert, an affineur (editor), tastes and tests the cheese (story) to check if it’s perfect. Sometimes the cheese must mature longer (needs additional edits).

Throughout the ages, caves were used to ripen cheese. The temperature and humidity in a cave is constant and therefore perfect for specific cheeses.

What conditions do writers need for their brand of cheese (story)? Well, they need a cheese cave then, don’t they? A place set aside for them in which to write. Roald Dahl used a shed at the bottom of his garden for peace and quiet. What caves do other writers like?

Let’s have some fun and see if you recognize what cheese/genre your stories fall under.

Blue cheese writer: horror stories. If horror is all one writes, then this writer must stay away from other cheeses (genres) because the culture used for blue cheese is very powerful and attacks other cheeses. Don’t get me wrong—I love blue cheese. But what sort of cave (environment) does the blue-cheese writer prefer? Maybe they need to surround themselves with dark creepy forests or a place covered in cobwebs. Perhaps they fill their “cave” with eerie music.

The brie writer: romance stories. This cheese (genre) can be oozy and even cheesy (pun intended). Generally, brie (romance) can be made (written) fairly quickly and doesn’t need long to mature, but conditions must be perfect. What cave does this writer need? Maybe a romantic setting with plenty of roses and jasmine, along with romantic lyrics permeating the air.

The ricotta cheese writer: short stories and poems as mentioned above. So what sort of cave do they need? A coffee shop or any busy place with plenty of material moving about, or perhaps peace and quiet.

Mature cheddar cheese writer: historical, mystery, or suspense novels. Like cheddar, there are many pitfalls and mistakes that can be made in the complexity of this cheese (genre). The culture (research) has to be meticulous. The maturation period takes longer (more editing) to ensure the tastes (plot sequences) are correct and flow.

But in the end, all writers, despite their genre, have different needs. Some like a no-people, peace and quiet environment. Others combine the no-people thing with music or even a television—they don’t require conversation. There are those who can work in the living room surrounded by noisy dogs, kids, and a chatty spouse, plus the television and music. Hats off to them.

The point is, a writer’s refuge has to be like a cheese cave. We need a spot where the conditions are just right. The important thing is to find the right cave for your cheese (genre) to mature (write) in.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Reviewing a How-To: Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

Jessica Nelson

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a creative writing major at a liberal arts college. This is my third year, and I’m just now getting around to my fiction writing class, but so far things have been fun.

To get us started, our professor has been giving us exercises out of Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. This craft book takes you through the basic elements of good fiction writing using short chapters that include examples of the element and a prompt to help you begin.

From the back cover:

“Here is a book about the craft of writing fiction that is thoroughly useful whether for beginners, seasoned writers, or teachers of writing. You will see how a work takes form and shape once you grasp the principles of momentum, tension, and immediacy. ‘Tension,’ Stern says, ‘is the mother of fiction. When tension and immediacy combine, the story begins.’

“Dialogue and action, beginnings and endings, the true meaning of ‘write what you know,’ and memorable listing of don’ts for fiction writers are all covered. A special section features an Alphabet for Writers: entries range from Accuracy to Zigzag, with enlightening comments about such matters as Cliffhangers, Point of View, Irony, and Transitions.”

As someone who is working their way through the book, I can say his prompts are great jumping off points if your inspiration is lagging. The chapters and Alphabet for Writers are helpful if you don’t quite understand a concept.

I recently did the “Juggling” exercise (second chapter). “Juggling” makes you think about the way you take your reader through a character’s physical action, into their thoughts/background, and back into action. The idea is to weave action and internal thoughts seamlessly. Here’s a snippet from my attempt at “Juggling” to give you an idea:

Suzanne swerved around a dump truck. 8:52. If she glided through the next few stop signs and accelerated through a few yellow lights, she could make it to the meeting by the skin of her teeth. She could see it now: rushing into the conference room, breathless, all of her stuff still hanging from her arms. But she could do it. They always spent the first five minutes summarizing what happened at last week’s staff meeting. And she was actually at last week’s meeting, so it wasn’t like she needed to be there for the summary.

She zoomed up a turning lane. The green light twenty feet away turned yellow. She could make this. Pressing down on the accelerator, Suzanne whipped around the turn, centrifugal force throwing her against the driver’s side door.

I recommend Making Shapely Fiction because it’s a fun, useful guide that can spark your creativity and/or help you understand elements of fiction writing that maybe no one formally taught you. Often, writers write on instinct. We follow blindly where the Muse drags us and we thank her for the trip.

Sometimes there’s something happening in our story that’s not quite right but we’re not sure what, because it’s one of those things no high school English teacher taught us. Have no fear. Jerome Stern is going to teach you. And if you need more help, we at Inspiration for Writers are at your service!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Some Editors’ Accoutrements of War

Charlotte Firbank-King

Editors are there to guide and help writers hone their skills and write the best story they can. But is there such a thing as over-editing or bad editing? I think there might be. It’s possible to buckle under the weight of rules and lose heart. This is often how it goes:
First shot fired across the bows—show, don’t tell.

Really? How are newbies supposed to know that and then still grasp the concept? This is followed by a barrage of cannon fire that leaves the newbie’s sweat and blood, ah manuscript, littered with bullet holes—ah, comments and deletions, much like this list:

      These are misplaced modifiers.

      Hey! Put the comma in a compound sentence.

      Use emotions, actions, be creative—don’t constantly use, he said/she said.

      Slow the pace.

      Keep the pace going.

      No shopping lists.

      Watch that POV breach.

      This is a gawking narrator.

      Add more atmosphere.

      Stop with telling the reader every last detail from the sand on a pair of shoes to each painting on
a wall.

      Too many adjectives and adverbs, cut ‘em out or at least down to one, maybe two.

      The scenes aren’t rich enough—Flesh them out.

      No passive sentences allowed.

      Stop with all the gerunds.

      Enough already with the clichés.

      Oi! Watch those intensifiers.

      Stop with the redundancies.

The list is long and daunting. It’s like putting running shoes on a baby after their first step, then shoving them on a track and hollering, “Now show me what ya got!” Or a kid writes their first word at school. Time to throw the thesaurus at them. “Right, now sharpen up your prose!”

And the broadside shot, most loved by some editors—toe the line if you want to be published or be a bestseller, usually couched in polite, but veiled threatening terms. It may be a terse: fine, if that’s how you want to write. I’m only here to guide you. But it really means—you will never succeed if you don’t follow the rules!
None of this is bad advice—well, except this last salvo. In fact, rules need to be pointed out (not fired like a volley of bullets) or it wouldn’t be editing.

After the battle, the newbie is a crippled, gibbering wreck, ready to wave the white flag, and their characters are collateral damage in this war to forge a newbie into a James Patterson. The newbie is ready to give up dreams of becoming a writer, never mind the next NY Times bestseller. Has the editor crushed the newbie's fresh, albeit naïve prose? Maybe. But hell, the editor is pleased to see nice crisp writing with not an error in sight and every word, every sentence perfect—or soulless? Maybe even a clone of the editor’s style.

It would behoove editors to remember when they first started writing. I know I was lousy. But like all newbies, my eyes sparkled with enthusiasm and my fingers itched to write one of the million stories churning about in my creative head. The only thing I had was a love of words, but I went forth to conquer with blind gusto.

Then I crashed and burned. Maybe I was delusional and couldn’t write at all. My manuscript was littered with red and comments and deletions crawled over themselves like worms in a can.

Copious tears and rants later—the dog, cat, and parrot have all fled to safety—I pick myself up, dust myself off, wipe my bloodied nose, and forge ahead with grit and determination—I will learn—I will succeed! Despite the editor beating up on me.

First rejection letter. Second and on to the twentieth and then some more rejection letters.

Crash and burn again. This writing gig really hurts.

I think editors often edit their own work into a blubber heap of perfect writing without a pulse.

My own personal rule: write as it comes—usually badly, then cut out the glaring tumors and breathe life into it. I know many editors approach their work like this. They should look at newbies in the same way, and avoid killing the newbie's naïve approach to their story. I mean, it will need major surgery and a full face lift or ten for sure, but take care the story doesn’t morph into the cat-lady with excessive surgery—ah, editing.

On the flipside, I understand the frustrations and obsessive desire to whip a newbie into shape, but stop!

The art of writing well doesn’t happen in a day or even a year—it takes thousand and tens of thousands of words and years, and editors know this.

Maybe it’s time to cut ourselves and the newbies some slack.

Does this mean one shouldn't hire an editor? No! It means a writer should hire a good editor who is sensitive to the writer's voice and doesn't trample on it, and who doesn't overwhelm a new writer with a barrage of rules without giving examples. A good editor will build a relationship with writers, new and seasoned, and they’ll encourage when one is too despondent to continue.

Think Mount Everest and the Sherpas that guide one to the summit. That is what you need in an editor—a Sherpa. Inspiration for Writers will help you find your Sherpa to get you to the top of your Mount Everest. Just give us a call.