Sunday, January 29, 2012

Cooking with Celia: Orzo-Stuffed Tomatoes

Given the popularity of my Black-Eyed Peas & Quinoa Salad post and my general lack of inspiration this week having to do with writing matters, I've decided a late-weekend "Cooking with Celia" post is better than no post at all. Ergo, I present to you my Orzo-Stuffed Tomatoes. I make these with veggie chicken strips and vegan mayo, but I assume it would work as well with a dead animal and something made out of an embryo. Any stuffed tomato recipe is only as good as the tomatoes, of course, so do try to get your hands on actual tomatoes. Try organic, vine-ripened. Also, be careful with the orzo: note that it nearly doubles in size as it cooks, so 1 cup cooked is just about 1/2 - 1/3 cup raw. As to the apple, any kind will do, but I prefer a nice, tart green one.


6 large tomatoes
1 cup cooked orzo
1 cup chopped cooked chicken
3/4 cup each of chopped celery, carrot, and apple
3/4 cup thawed peas
3/4 cup chopped curly parsley
1 tsp. finely chopped garlic (about 1 clove)
3/4 cup mayo
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tbsp. lemon juice
2 tbsp. black pepper
2 tsp. salt
Romaine leaves for garnish

1. Prepare the tomatoes. I prefer to leave the peel on, because it helps to keep the tomatoes sturdy. If it freaks you out, however, lightly score a cross at the bottom of each tomato. Dip them in boiling water for 30 seconds to a minute, until the scored part shrinks slightly. Transfer immediately to a bowl of ice water, or they will cook. When they are cool enough to handle, the peel should come off easily. Otherwise, just cut the top off to form a bowl. You can be fancy if you like and make a cute pattern, like scallops or a zigzag. You can throw away the tops or use them later as a garnish. Also remove a small sliver from the bottom so the tomato will sit up when stuffed. Scoop out the insides with a small spoon, gently. You can save these for a soup or sauce.

2. In a large bowl, mix together the orzo, chicken, celery, carrot, apple, peas, parsley, and garlic.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the mayo, mustard, lemon juice, pepper, and salt until well mixed. Fold into orzo salad.

4. Using a spoon, stuff orzo salad into the tomatoes. Don't worry if there's leftover salad, you can use it for garnish.

5.  Serve over romaine leaves. Place any leftover salad around the tomato. Garnish with tomato tops, celery stalks, or parsley. Serve immediately or refrigerate, covered, overnight.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Unheimlich Maneuvers

In the strong belief that one of the major steps a beginning writer has to take in order to progress is to learn to create a strong, effective settings, I have begun my creative writing class this semester with a discussion of setting, why it’s important, and how to create one. For their first exercise, I’ve asked my students to write a two-page description of setting, or a one-page poem.

The exercise looks simple, but it’s not. Apart from a few students who had recently taken a vacation, most of them complained that they found the exercise extremely difficult. “I didn’t know what to write about,” was the most general complaint, of course. That’s why setting is a struggle for the beginner; we don’t see the places we inhabit. We take them for granted, and so, when we write, we skip them.

This is bad, of course, because, as the old saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. A story or a poem with an absent or weak setting will feel “thin” even though the reader may not notice exactly what is missing. But how can you do a good job at recreating (or simply creating) something that you have trouble seeing yourself? The answer is that you must somehow learn to see again. You must perform, if you will, an unheimlich maneuver, learn to make the familiar unfamiliar.  The Freudian concept of the unheimlich or “the uncanny” is extremely useful in creating setting. Basically, it refers to something that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, and therefore creeps you out. Think of those dreams where you’re in your house, only it’s not your house somehow. Something’s off, you can’t pin it down. You become obsessed with it; you notice every detail in the attempt to figure it out.

While you don’t want to make all your settings creepy, you do need that unheimlich ability to notice what you normally don’t. When we are constantly surrounded by familiar settings, our brains go on autopilot. You stop seeing the colors on the walls, you stop smelling the air freshener, you don’t hear the constant drone of the air conditioner. You only notice what is differentwhen something’s burning in the kitchen, for example. This is our brain’s way of conserving energy. Imagine noticing everything all the timeyou’d be so overwhelmed with sensory information, you wouldn’t be able to do much.

What is good for our peace and productivity, however, is bad for our writing. We think there’s nothing to describe about our daily settings. Most of us live very dull lives. Home. School. Work. The gym. The mall. The same five or six settings, week after week after week. Every city has the same Target, the same CVS, the same broad avenue leading to a supermarket parking lot. Our worlds become invisible. When I actually make it to the beach, I feel like I’m on another planet. That’s why those students who had recently been on a vacation fared a little better, and why, when given the assignment to write about setting, we often reach for the latest unfamiliar experience like the latest vacation.

You can’t keep your characters on vacation all the time, however. In truth, our stories belong in our daily lives, in those five or six settings that are, well, boring. So, what to do? How can we create realistic settings and rich worlds without truly seeing them or boring the reader? About boring the reader, never you mind. We all have a strong voyeuristic impulse. Your house may be boring to you, but it’s super interesting to anyone else. Just think of the last time you were at a new friend’s house. You know you scanned the bookshelves and the music rack, the paintings and pictures. You peeked inside the medicine cabinet and behind the shower curtain when you went to the bathroom. All the mundane details of your new friend’s daily lifethings that she or he probably hasn’t noticed for yearswere of extreme interest to you.

So then only one problem remains: your ability to effectively write about something you have trouble seeing. Take a lesson from the makers of air fresheners and candles. Those air fresheners or candles that “cycle” between two fragrances know that the trick to putting your brain back in notice mode is change.

One good way to do this is to keep a journal in which you describe your daily settings daily. The proposition might seem boring, but you’d be surprised what the expectation of having to describe something will make you notice.

Some classic moves involve pretending to describe the place to an alien or a blind person. These don’t work very well, I think. The alien viewpoint makes everything seem, well, alien, and that’s not what you’d be going for in a regular realistic piece. The trick to a rich realistic setting, ironically, is to make it disappear. It’s holding everything together like a great pair of Spanx, but it’s not jumping out at you and overwhelming other aspects of the story. The alien viewpoint will do that. The blind guide viewpoint is a little better, because at least it’s human. The problem with the blind guide, however, is selection. The only way setting becomes boring is if it’s unnecessary, too much. Your blind pal might need to know the location of every piece of furniture in your living room in order to successfully navigate it, but your reader can’t really do anything with the fact that the sofa is at twelve o’clock and the armchair at three.

Additionally, the blind guide viewpoint makes you focus too much on visual detail, which is already a danger given that vision is our dominant sense. Same thing goes for the paint-your-setting idea. What you want is a selection of meaningful sensory detail.

The sensory part is easy. We’ve got five: sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. Noticing these is a simple listing task. Sit in the place you want to describe (or close your eyes and imagine it), and spend a fixed amount of time on each sense, listing what you notice on a piece of paper. The result will be a meaningless collection of detail, but isolating each sense will help you notice what you need to.

The next step is to select and arrange the details on your list. First, determine the dominant impression you want to make. For example, if you want to convey a sense of tension, you might want to skip the smell of baking cookies that you genuinely noticed but doesn’t go with your goal. Cross out some things, add others.

These two preliminary steps are mostly mechanical, however, and won’t get you all the way to fantastic. The only way to get there is to step outside yourself and get to know the reader. You must be aware of the reader’s expectations, and play with that. These are the right “stranger’s eyes,” not the alien’s or the blind pal’s. Begin by asking yourself, what does the reader already know about this place? What doesn’t she?

One of the most difficult places to write about is the Caribbean, because people have so many expectations of it. Say so much as the word and immediately it conjures up palm trees, sandy beaches, and clear blue waters: clichés. One of the pieces I make my students read early is “The Caribbean, By a Nose,” a wonderful short piece by Jerry V. Haines. Haines does a good job of recognizing the reader’s expectations about palm trees and the like, and arranges his piece around unexpected details like trash fires and jitney exhaust. It’s a good lesson in “I bet you didn’t know” writing.

Ultimately, however, the best way to get to know the reader is to become one yourself. Reading about the Caribbean or Miami is a real hoot for me sometimes. I love it how Miami, for example, is always somehow Miami Beach. The pastel art deco hotels of Ocean Drive, the Miami Vice vision of the city, so predominate the global imagination that it’s as if the rest of the city doesn’t exist. In truth, Miami Beach is a separate city, and a small one at that. Reading about it, however, creates a really productive impulse in me to tell you what it’s really like, and that corrective desire can be awakening.

Research the places you intend to write about. For example, one intriguing piece I got from my students was a recollection of a visit to Portugal. She describesquite well!—the delicious taste of samosas. To me, samosas are Indian food, and I’m dying to know about that colonial relationship, and how Indian culture is part of Portuguese culture these days. You may not know these things off the top of your head even if you’re Portuguese, but a little background history can really enrich your sense of a place, and ours.

Places, in other words, are not just sensory landscapes. The beginner forgets sometimes that places are an equation: land + people / time. Just like we are so used to our daily settings that we don’t see them, we often live in places so familiar to us that we don’t see or perhaps don’t know the historical changes that have made them. A great example of how knowing a place’s history can enrich your ability to write about it is Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem (yes, I’m stealing the example from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well). This is a great example of how to write about a place. Not only does Didion describe the physical landscape, but also she knows how the history of the place has shaped the lives of the people who live in it. Suddenly finding out that the city you’ve been living in for the past ten years was founded by mobsters can really make you see it with new eyes. There is always something interesting about places if you dig long enough.

But what if you’re writing about a completely made up place, or just one small room? Even galaxies far, far away have elements of the real in them, so knowing how real places work can help you build fake ones. As far as tiny rooms go, they too have tiny histories. How you decided to paint every wall a different color despite having only twenty square feet of living space, for example, because you couldn’t bear the thought of living with white walls. Conversely, the white walls that came with the apartment and that you never bothered to paint because you always thought you’d be moving “soon.” There’s no such thing as “nothing to write about” when it comes to setting. We don’t live in vacuums. We are always somewhere, even when we close our eyes, even in a sensory deprivation tank. Create a sense of attentivenesslearn to make the familiar newand you will be surprised at how much you’ve been missing.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Top Mistakes Beginning Writers Make, Part II

Welcome back! It’s all about second acts in this second year of Writing with Celia, and so my first real post of the new year is a part II. If you missed part I, well, go and read it! Otherwise, proceed below, with the second half of typical beginners’ booboos.
A great book for
learning how to
read critically.
1.     Not reading critically. Many of the faux pas committed by beginning writers are directly attributable to poor reading habits. Even if you spend the rest of your life in workshop, you will never learn a single thing about writing if you don’t read voraciouslyand well. Here, I’m not going to rant again about the need to read in order to learn to write. I believe I’ve made that point! But I do want to emphasize the need to not only read well, meaning good books written by good writers who can help you grow, but also to read critically. Why is this book so satisfying, but not that? Very often, the beginning writer reads for pleasure, puts the book down with a smile or a grimace, and grabs the next. Both books you enjoyed and those you didn’t can help you grow as a writer if you learn to analyze your reactions and how they came about. In order to do this easily and well, it helps to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of literary criticism. That’s why the best writing programs are those that have a strong literature studies program attached to them. You can reproduce this effect on your own, however. Buy a typical college reader and study on your own, for example. A book club can also help you analyze why good books are good and bad ones bad by forcing you to not only analyze your own reactions, but discuss them with others. Just make sure your book club has good readers in it who will also be capable of analysis. Finally, keeping a reading journal is also an excellent way of paying attention to the nuts and bolts. Every time you read, grab your journal and explain to yourself why you enjoyed / didn’t enjoy what you just read.

2.     No sense of experimentation. Only the bravest of beginning writers are willing to go out on a limb, but usually even those people can’t quite figure out what it means to do that, and so beginners’ writing is usually very safe (read: dull). You grow, however, by taking risks. You don’t always have to tell the story in past tense, third person omniscient, or first-person point of view that sounds like third-person omniscient for all the voice it has. You don’t have to tell it chronologically. Try it in present tense, try it from the point of view of the parrot, try it backwards. Try it a couple of different ways. Get freaky with it.

3.      Narcissistic point of view. The beginning writer often fails to realize that just because something is interesting to him or her, it doesn’t make it interesting to someone else. The drawn-out tale of the first breakup, for example, may make you weep as you write it, but it makes us gag or giggle, neither of which you meant for us to do. Why? You forgot about us. You were writing about yourself and for yourself, which is fine as long as you can make some kind of empathetic leap, as long as you can convey what is representative, human, and eternal about yourself. The moment you forget about us readers, however, you shut down your inner critic, and that makes for bad writing. There’s a school of writing instruction, a good one, that insists one writes what ones knows, and one of course knows oneself. But often this advice is taken to the extreme, and the writer becomes unable to discern the difference between writing for others and writing for therapy. This happens to be how so many beginners’ workshops are full of stories written from the point of view of children, which is so incredibly difficult to do well that it’s hardly a task for the beginner. But the writer is trying to work something out, like a parents’ divorce, or is so young that “writing about yourself” literally means writing from the point of view of a child. These stories are usually very predictable and boring, and, though they are attempts at “coming of age” narratives, they are not good ones, because there is no critical space between the narrated experience and its writing. “Writing for yourself” is okay only insofar as you think of yourself as an other, a critical doppelganger who shares your interests and experiences, but who is still someone else.

4.     Purposely derivative elements. This one’s baffling to me, but I see it all the time. Workshopping these pieces is a hoot: the workshop usually consists of a string of comments such as “this character reminds me of X” and “that part reminded me of Y” or “this story reminds me of . . . “in short, the piece is nothing but a quilt of other people’s writing. The workshop always crumbles when someone brings up the obvious: are you enjoying this story, or the ones it’s reminding you of? It’s a devastating problem for the writer, who usually conceived of the elements purposely drawing them from other texts she or he has enjoyed. “I wanted to make this character sort of like X in Y,” she or he will say. Only, “sort of” is more like “exactly.” There’s nothing wrong with retelling stories, but you must make them yours in some way.

And now, some typical hurdles more specific to the poet:

5.     Excessive simple rhymes. Often, the beginning poet doesn’t quite know what poetry is apart from rhymed words, and so reaches for too many bad ones, paying no attention or too little to everything else that makes a poem a poem. The problem comes from unfamiliarity with anything remotely contemporary or literary when it comes to poetry. Song lyrics, children’s rhymes, and light verse (such as that found in greeting cards) all rely heavily on simple rhymes, but contemporary literary poetry is a completely different animal. Though rhyme exists is both formal and free verse, it must be controlled and fresh. You can’t Dr. Seuss your way into a poem, but, if the last time you actually read a poem was when you were seven years old, you’ll probably try to.

6.     Writing about feelings. The beginning poet confuses poetry with emotion. This is some kind of conspiracy perpetrated by Hallmark, no doubt. Outpourings of abstract emotion are no more poetry than your high school diary was. Even Dr. Seuss knows that poetry is about green eggs and ham: about stuff. Your poem must have things in it that we can see, hear, taste, smell, etc. If these things conjure up feelings in us, you’ve done your job. But telling us about the feelings you’ve had instead of the things that elicited them from you is like chewing our food for us, which is gross. Maxine Kumin, whom I once had the pleasure of studying with, always said poems are like rooms. We must fill them with furniture, and the reader will live in them. You can’t sit on love and rest your coffee cup on despair.

7.     Writing exclusively about love. The beginning poet also often thinks of poetry as exclusively love poetry, which is only a small subset of the whole thing. Poetry can be about anything, and some of my favorite poems are about dead animals and chapatti fried in ghee. Love poems, like stories told from the point of view of children, are actually extremely difficult to write well, and not for beginners. In fact, the beginner shouldn’t think of the poem as being “about” any particular emotion at all. Make it about something concrete, like the fence or the tomatoes or the sweaty socks.

Not sure if it's a
cliché? Look it
8.     No awareness of cliché. Another problem that comes from not enough reading. The beginner actually thinks of the cliché as good. The lips are always like roses or cherries, the eyes always blue as the sky. If something hits them, it always does so like a ton of bricks. Cliché is the most insidious, disgusting weed in the garden of writing. Let just one in, and, like rabbits or tribbles, they’ll multiply and take over your writing until every sentence has one or more. The beginner’s problem is that she or he doesn’t recognize them as evil. They are familiar little easy phrases that are easy to grab. Learning to spot clichés and weed them out takes time and effort, like all good things do.

9.     No awareness of contemporary poetry. Kind of goes without saying at this point, but the problem of not reading is even worse when it comes to poetry. Decent enough prose will come at you sideways sometimesa great script, a great article you read in the doctor’s office. Contemporary poetry exists in an alternate universe, however, and you will never bump into it accidentally. If you don’t make the effort to learn who is writing today, and how, and why, all you’ll know of poetry is nursery rhymes and light verse, and the occasional classic or uplifting poem some poor teacher included in the syllabus one day when she was feeling hopeful. The range and dynamism of contemporary poetry is amazing. There are lyrical poets, confessional poets, experimental poets, formalists, spoken word artists. So much, all of it different. If you want to have fun at the party, you have to first find out where it is, and what it takes to get invited.
An excellent guide
to the elements of
contemporary poetry.

10.  No awareness of form. Apart from simple rhyme schemes, the beginning poet doesn’t know much about what kinds of decisions go into the way a poem looks. Beyond not being acquainted with traditional forms such as the sonnet or villanelle, the beginner often has no notion of the function of form in free verse. Why are some lines long, and others short? Why are some poems arranged into stanzas, and some not? What is the purpose of counting syllables? What the heck is scansion? These are all “mysteries” to the beginner, but bread and butter to the initiated. Form is what makes a poem a poem, not rhyme. Unfortunately, it’s not an easy thing to study, but that’s no excuse to ignore it. A poem isn’t a poem until the arrangement of words has a specific function.

Well, there you have it. I’m sure there’s more, but these are the issues that I encounter most frequently in my beginning courses. Seeing them all laid out like this is pretty daunting, but I find comfort in order, in cataloguing. Know thy enemy! It takes many, many years to move from these early problems to the next set, and many times even very experienced writers would do well to think in these basic ways once more. Start with one or two issues, practice, and move on to the next.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

It's Our First Anniversary!

Just wanted to polish off a quick post to celebrate the first anniversary of this blog, and I'll return to the discussion of beginners' problems in the regular post. It's been an interesting endeavor, keeping this blog. I've said a lot about setting goals and keeping them, and this blog is an example of how that works. I said I'd have a weekly post, and, minus the summer, I pretty much did that, so that feels good.

Some posts got a lot of feedback, some not so much. By far for me the two most exciting were my interviews with Chad Parmenter and Lesley Wheeler. They were both immensely kind to take time out to answer my questions, and I'm beyond tickled to think that, via my blog, someone out there might have discovered their work for the very first time! I've also gotten lots of great feedback on the craft posts, and it's another source of great pleasure to think I might have motivated someone to improve their writing. In a surprising twist, one of the most popular posts turns out to have been the Black-Eyed Peas & Quinoa Salad recipe! I have to try to post some more recipes, I guess.

So, what have you liked? Not liked? Please tell! I would love to hear what you'd like to see more or less of, and will try to please and come up with new ways of getting to the second year.

Thanks to all of you for reading!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Top Mistakes Beginning Writers Make, Part I

It’s time to spruce up the syllabus for the new semester, and that means lots of thinking about the kind of students I’ll be teaching and what they need to learn. I teach an introductory course, so that means truly raw beginnersstudents who may never have attempted to write creatively before. Over the years, one comes to notice repeating struggles, and, since I’m into counting lately, I thought I’d compile a list of the top mistakes beginning writers make. At first I thought I’d distinguish between prose and poetry, but, as I compiled the list, I soon realized that there’s so much overlap that such a distinction would be misleading. So, what follows applies to all kind of writing, except for the few isolated only for poetry, and those only marginally.

1. T
oo much dialogue. Perhaps it’s the fact that we watch more movies than read books these days, and movies, as drama, rely on dialogue more than the short story or novel do, or at least seem to do so. In truth, movies that are too “talky” often bore people. My husband hated Before Sunrise, for example, because all Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy did was talk. I still love that movie, and even the sequel, Before Sunset. Great freaking dialogue, but also great characters and a great story, which is the point: the problem isn’t too much dialogue, but, rather, misusing dialogue to tell the story that would be better told through exposition, summary, or action. The beginning writer doesn’t quite know how to manipulate other elements of storytelling, and so relies on dialogue because it’s familiar; we all know how to talk, how to tell a story, and so you wind up with long passages of characters explaining things to one another, orevil of all evils!—to him or herself. Page after page of dialogue is boring and weird, and makes for skimpy storytelling. Characters should speak only when they have something to say.

2. Not paying attention to pacing. An offshoot of the pages of dialogue problem, pacing is the secret forté of the professional and the bane of the beginner. The beginner starts at the beginning and continues to the end, usually without too much consideration for what deserves attention and what should be skipped over quickly or even entirely. The balancing act between scene (a detailed account of a particular moment) and summary (an express recap of long periods of time) can be one of the hardest writing skills to master, but it’s the secret between boring and exciting reading. Get to the good part, and, when you get there, take it slow.

3, No patience with the story (no development). Also related to pacing is the problem of scanty development. Beginning writers want to tell the story as quickly as possible, and, while there’s a place in this world for flash fiction, even for micro fiction, the question of good development has little to do with word count. You have to learn to give the story the room it needs to be told well, and, too often, the beginning writer tries to shove a novel into a postcard. Writing is a slow, complex process, and, if the only reason why your story is two pages long is because you “just wanted to get it over with,” you’re in the wrong business.

4. Flat characters. Characters are often the first to fall prey to the scanty development bug. This one is good, that one is bad, and we really don’t know why. “She’s a typical ‘hooker with the heart of gold,’” the beginner will say, as if that’s a good thing. Flat characters are clichés (hooker with the heart of gold) or circumstances (the boss), not people. You have to provide motivations for your characters. We need to know why the do the things they do, say the things they say, and think and feel the way they do. Not only does this take time and space, but thought. You can’t just grab a character off the shelfyou must create one.

5. Naïve understanding of life. Part of the problem of the beginning writer is that usually he or she is young. Scientists have actually studied the adolescent and post-adolescent brain and its capacity for complex moral development, and found that young people tend to think in absolutesgood versus evil, for example. A sign of maturity is the ability to see shades of gray. Thus, the beginning writer tends to punish the bad guy at the end of the story while rewarding the good guy, as in fairy tales. No one is either wholly good or wholly bad, of course, but experience must teach you this. Students rankle when I bring this up. Being in college is all about becoming an adult, and it hurts to be reminded in any way how new you are at that, especially when you feel so secretly inadequate in the first place. Some students also argue that they’ve “been through more” in their short lives than “most people have been through at forty” (meaning me, of course!). True. Some people have unfortunate beginningspoverty, abuse, illness, and death affect people of all ages. The way we process these events, however, changes with time. About one out every three introductory course stories involves someone’s death, for example. As we grow older, however, we come to realize that death is not only natural and common, but, quite frankly, nothing to write about. Most young writers have difficulty understanding how little drama there is to death, illness, even abuse. They may be part of a good story, but not de facto a good story by themselves.

6. No sense of interior conflict. This list is coming out ike a braid; recognizing the role of interior conflict is the next step after realizing that “the death of X” is not de facto a good story. It’s how Y reacts to the death of X that canmaybemake for a good story. The beginning writer’s world is all about exteriority. Planes crash, bags of money are found, lovers are unfaithful: things happen to the characters, but the characters don’t change in any way, just their exterior circumstances. The good guy may lose his business, be crippled in a car accident, and have his dog stolen by his ex-wife, but, in the end, he’s the same good guy he was at the beginning of the story! Watch any soap opera and observe. Most times, characters weep frantically, scream at one another, and tear things up (notice that these are all also exterior manifestations of interior turmoil) when things happen to them. However, they remain either good or evil despite these circumstances. Learning to write about our interior lives, those inner struggles under apparently normal circumstances that we all experience and that define us more than our exterior circumstances do, is one of the first breakthroughs a beginning writer can have.

7. Senseless plotting. The lack of interior conflict in the beginner’s story often means that there’s a lot going on outside, and some of it just doesn’t make sense. You need to end your story, for example, but, because all you’ve got is a series of circumstances with no connection to fully developed character psyches, your only recourse is some story-ending event. The wedding. The graduation. The death. Even worse, the winning lotto ticket, the alien abduction, or the meteor apocalypse. That’s one kind of senseless plotting, the traditional deus ex machina that ends the story by ending the world or other exterior circumstances. It’s senseless because we all know that weddings, graduations, deaths, jackpots, aliens, and meteors aren’t real endings, just arbitrary ones (well, maybe meteors . . .). A wedding, for example, may or may not be a satisfying ending, depending on the conflict that lead up to it. If the conflict was whether or not the fiancé is the right person, the wedding itself is hardly going to answer this question, since most likely we won’t know for a long time afterwards. Yet, many superficially plotted stories end this way, as if the ceremony could wipe out all previous conflicts (no doubt this is also the reason why there are so many divorces, but I digress).

But that relies on you having identified a conflict to begin with, and the problem with many beginners’ stories is that there is no clear conflict. Characters are just walking around, attending a party, for example, and there’s nothing at stake. There’s no tension moving you from one moment to the next, no quest. You don’t know how to end the story because you don’t know what the story is. We’re peeping in on some people doing some stuff, but there’s no theme, nothing. That’s not a story, that’s an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

8. Misidentifying the drama / Wasting time on bad material. All of which leads to perhaps the most common beginner’s problem, not recognizing where the story is. You write up to the death of X, the devasting breakup, or the big wedding, giving often meticulous attention to all the little events leading up to The Big Event. The first cough that should have sent X running to the doctor but didn’t, the first spat over dinner that foreshadows (beginners love foreshadowingthey learned it in AP English) The Divorce, the meeting of the lovers as they caught each other’s eyes across a crowded room (the room must always be crowded). To make things worse, the beginning writer begins the story with “The day my [or his/her] life changed forever began with . . . .” Zzzzzzzzzz. Not only is no one surprised by these familiar trajectories, but also there’s very little drama before any big event. This is very, very difficult for the beginning writer to accept, that a Big Event on down the line somewhere does not create automatic anticipation. In truth, the more interesting stories happen after: after the death, the breakup, the wedding. How do the characters adapt to their lives after a change? The Big Event might mark some exterior spot on the characters’ lives, but the real story is where the interior conflict is, and that can be anywhere in relation to an exterior event. The beginner writes over and over about garden weddings and rainy funerals, but there’s just nothing there. The story is elsewhere.

9. Vacuum settings. Related to the problem of excessive dialogue, stories set in a vacuum are extremely common. Beginning writers are impatient with setting, and so you have characters running around generic high schools or clubs or whatever, or, sometimes, nowhere at all. Before you roll your eyes and claim that descriptions of setting are boring, consider how interested you’d be in a radio play. Though there are some fantastic radio plays, the form was overshadowed by television for just one reason: we could see the people in the play. The only way for us to be able to see the people in your writing is if you put them somewhere. If you only describe what they look like without telling us where they are, all we’ve got is paper dolls. Put them in cars that drive down streets in specific cities, or on horses galloping down a beach, or, WTF, in the vacuum of space, as long as they’re in a spacesuit tethered to a spaceship full of buttons and light and the smell of the spacetoilet. Characters interact with their settings, and are a product of them. A girl and a boy on a date in LA will not behave the same as a girl and a boy on a date in NY. One couple will ride around in a car, the other take the subway. And that’s just a minor difference. Beginning writers don’t “see” very well, or smell, taste, and feel, for that matter. They have an overdeveloped sense of hearingpeople talki ng, phones ringing, music playing, shots being fired, tires screeching. Imagine you are writing instructions to a filmmaker. What should the set look like? Where should the actors be?

10. No idea how to revise. Beyond making a few grammatical corrections, the impatience of the beginning writer is nowhere more evident than in the revision process. The beginning writer often believes that the best writing is spontaneously produced, if you have any talent, that is. That’s the first stumble right there, equating revision with lack of talent. The beginning writer also has a hard time realizing that writing is work. The word “creative” is no help, either. Creative things are supposed to be fun, aren’t they? So, if you have to “work” at something, you’re not good at it, either, not talented. So, the beginner is stuck in an endless stream of first drafts. Even when he or she begins to accept that revision mayafter allbe somewhat normal and acceptable, the beginner has no idea how to go about it, how to a) identify the flaws in the writing, and b) address them successfully. The beginning writer is essentially lazy, and would rather ride the adrenaline rush of the first draft than plod through the swamp of revision.

Ah, the beginning writer, that fragile, enthusiastic puppy! You break my heart. Tune in next week for the second half of this post, where I’ll finish with the general psychology and take a look at that other mysterious creature, the Beginning Poet. Till then, wish me luck in syllabusland.

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