31 December 2010

Writerly Resolutions for 2011

While you’re committing to cleaning out the garage or eating healthier or learning to play the banjo, jot down a few writing goals for 2011.

Feeling a little blue about past years’ resolutions quickly falling by the wayside? Perhaps you could tweak your resolution making. Start by thinking big and list everything you want to accomplish in 2011. Then, break it down. Lofty goals can seem overwhelming and difficult to achieve. Smaller, more focused goals will help you get there. Also, be specific. Instead of simply committing to “writing more” this year, give yourself a word count or amount of time to write for each week (or month). That gives you something to work toward and helps you track whether you’re accomplishing your goal or not.

So, what are your writing-related resolutions this year?

29 December 2010

Dialogue: Keep it Real

I’ve been thinking about dialogue lately, specifically how cramming expository material into dialogue is a sure way to scorch what could be lush. (What prompted this? A very smartly written story having a momentary lapse in writing.) Dialogue should communicate information, but not all kinds of information belong in dialogue.

Dialogue packaged only for the reader—without concern for the characters in the exchange—is bound to sound forced. For example, a husband says to his wife:

"I can't go to the shop after dark anymore. My brother Doug died driving that same stretch of road because it was dark out."

The wife already knows about the brother's death and the circumstances under which he died. How often are your friends and loved ones telling you obvious information about themselves as if that information were new?

Here's a revision of how that dialogue might sound in the course of natural conversation:

"I can't, not since Doug's accident."

If the brother’s death is even more recent or otherwise on the surface for this couple, his dialogue might be even more abrupt:

"I can’t."

So how do you get the rest of that information to the reader? Narrative and suggestion. Here's an example of how it might be done:

After dinner, his wife cleared the table. He listened to the fork on the plates as she scraped food into the garbage. She wanted those papers. He knew right where he had left them—piled atop a speaker next to his office door. If only she'd mentioned it an hour earlier, when it was still dusk. He didn’t want to have this conversation. She’d tell him to try. But he had tried and all he did was sit in the parked car thinking about Doug and the snaking road along Windsor Lake. He walked to the kitchen entryway. " I can't," he said.

This passage pays attention not only to the reader's need for information but also the history of experience between these two characters.

09 December 2010

reside, write, repeat

Kerouac House
When I think of writers’ residencies, I don’t usually think of airports. Still, there’s something to be said for writing under unexpected circumstances. Last year, author Alain de Botton served as Heathrow’s first writer-in-residence. He set up shop in the middle of Terminal 5 and got to work, his writing appearing in real time on a screen behind him. Heathrow invited him, but he had some stipulations. He wanted generous access to the airport and authorities could not review the work that resulted before publication. A Week at the Airport, the book that came from this experience, was recently released in the United States. The residency experience may have much larger reverberations beyond this book. In an interview with CNN, Alain de Botton said of talking with travelers, “I could write many hundreds of novels based on what they told me.”

Heathrow invited Alain de Botton, but there are plenty of unique residencies writers can apply for. In a program that will continue for two hundred years, Andrews Forest Writers’ Residency invites writers-in-residence to visit specific study sites in the forest and reflect on and write about the forest and their relationship to it. The writings become a part of the archives at Oregon State University.

The National Parks Service currently has twenty-nine parks participating in the Artist-in-Residence program where artists, including writers, can live and work in the parks. Sites include the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming, Joshua Tree National Park in California and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

As a former writer-in-residence of The Kerouac Project of Orlando, I can tell you Kerouac’s Orlando home is something special. Writers-in-residence spend three months in the house where Kerouac lived when he was writing The Dharma Bums. You can sit on the back steps, the very place where Kerouac curled up—severely sick and locked out of the house—upon his return from New York City after the publication of his most famous novel, On the Road. There are other residencies connected to famous authors. The Marguerite and Lamar Smith Fellowship for Writers includes a residency in a private apartment in the childhood home of Carson McCullers in Columbus, Georgia. The Thurber House Residency in Children’s Literature includes a month long retreat in James Thurber’s home in Columbus, Ohio. The James Merrill House Writer-in-Residence Program provides living and working space in James Merrill’s residence in Stonington, Connecticut for a half or full academic year.

Don’t limit yourself only to residencies that already exist. Why not initiate your own? I’ve long thought the Brooklyn Bridge would be a great site for a writer-in-residence. Or the red line of Chicago’s El. Or a currency exchange shop. Or the kitchen of a late night diner. Of course, it’d be worth getting the okay first. And you might only take up partial residency so you can catch your forty winks in peace.