Switching Gears: A Teaching Life (Part III)

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When we immigrated to Canada, the plan was for me to pursue my career in writing and art. I had applied as a writer/editor and did not think to have my teaching credentials validated or certified because I had decided I did not want to apply for certification as a teacher. That was because somebody had sworn he would take any job at all just so he could support us in Canada and I would have the freedom to pursue my dreams.

It took a week for us to find an apartment, process our health cards, permanent resident ID cards, bank accounts, look for furniture, and buy a few things for the kitchen and house. Thank goodness the apartments had  water, a stove, and a refrigeratore already and we would not have to buy those. Even then, having to pay for an apartment in full for the next 12 months simply because we were newcomers seriously depleted my cash reserve, leaving very little to live on. The starving artist eventually found work at a popular coffee shop because that somebody who had sworn to work and support his family was not doing any job hunting. In previous talks, he had agreed to even live in the basement or over the garage and pay rent if we had a house, if only I would bring him along. I only agreed to get him a ticket because he promised to pay back everything, grab any job opportunity so he could support the family, and live over the garage. Also, my son refused to go with me if his father did not come along. That started some suspicions in me, but that is a whole other story. In fact, because he was not job hunting at all, I saw an opportunity to teach at the university and was given a 3-hour class for the fall the following year. His one-year deadline had arrived and he suddenly “found” a job but was unable to contribute anything for at least the next two months. Little did I suspect that he was making moves to disenfranchise me and build that high wall between me and my son. Long story turned short, I was forced out of my home in the dead of winter, forced to stay in hospital from the day after Christmas of 2008 to the 3rd week of January of 2009. Meanwhile, I began to make plans for my departure from the hospital and decided that the only and quickest way for me to earn a substantial living enough to support myself and my son was to get back into teaching. Thankfully, I had saved the bulk of my pay from teaching at university and survived on that and coffee shop work until my teaching credentials had been transferred and accepted and I embarked on my long career as a substitute teacher.

Teaching at a Canadian university for one semester was a bit of a culture shock. I had trained and taught college/tertiary school students who had come from all walks of life, and I had delivered many workshops, seminars, and training sessions for participants who were professionals and some even as old as my mother or older. I had rarely found students who were averse to receiving feedback–what we were calling “constructive criticism” since the 80s. Managerial experience gave me the knowledge and tools to conduct 360-degree feedback so that students could get the opinions of everyone and share their own as well. That did not sit well with the majority of students, nor did my requiring them do some readings, research, and reports as well as delivering demonstration lessons, since they were supposed to be a practical methodology class. I had already expressed my alarm to my dean that none of the students in my class had taken the theory course that should have been a requisite to the methods class I was teaching. I was told to do my best, so we had to include teaching theories to the practice. You can imagine that neither area could be fully explored. Worse yet, their evaluations of me indicated that the top 3 comments were they found that being given feedback or criticism of any sort in front of their classmates embarrassed them; they had expected me to teach them “everything she knew about teaching” the subject; they had expected me to fill every period with 3-hour lectures. I could only wonder what sort of teachers they would turn out to be if they did not learn by exploring and experimenting, by discovering things for themselves, or by learning to take criticism–they could not take it in a safe place from their peers, how were they to take any criticism from the 20-30 or so students in each class they handled?

After subbing whenever called and working late shifts at the coffee shop for 3 more years, I was called to interview at a prominent language school, where the pay was sadly low compared to substitute teaching or even public school teaching. I quickly discovered several unpleasant facts, including the fact that there was not much chance for pay increase, the work was uniform, and, once more, politics in an academic setting was present. The good thing was that the school provided teachers with TESL training and certification, which is how I acquired my certification. In fact, I was so motivated that I completed my training in 2 months and tested with a demo class in the 3rd month to earn my certificate. Sadly though, the school downsized and one of the newest hires, became one of the first let go.

That gave me the opportunity to get back to subbing, but because calls were extremely scarce and far between, I needed to avail of my Employment Insurance while writing more. That was when I finally wrote my first novel and the road to fulfilling my actual dreams was materializing before me. An unfortunate accident at the end of January 2013, however, made it very difficult to sub, or do anything else, but I still had to because I could only get so much from EI or from insurance payments, which ended after the 4th month. While all this was going on, I learned of a program supporting people on EI establish a business. I decided it would be a good time to embark on launching myself as a business. I attended some training in May, had my business plan written and completed before July, and registered Art ‘n’ Words Studio & Gallery in early August, 2013. For one year, I devoted my time to establishing my business, growing my network, and creating products.

Because my business was only slowly growing, I went back to subbing in the fall of 2014 with very few calls because I had been out for over a year, picked up a city job in winter and had it extended to spring, the next year, then struggled through summer until I could sub again in fall, at the same time taking in contracts and small jobs for my business. In the year of 2016, I picked up another full-time job that had me doing office work, which was good but also  gave me very few opportunities to sub. My contract lasted 10 months and by Christmas, I was relying again only on odd jobs. I was fortunate to be selected to manage a large event in January, which gave my finances a boost, then back again to subbing and business, as well as a few hours tutoring for the LDAPEI. I had also picked up a few students who needed private tutoring in writing, and and that sustained me until a friend informed me that the local college was hiring ESL teachers. I jumped at the opportunity and was hired in November, then recommended to teach as a sessional with a different department. I accepted the sessional position, the was recommended again for another sessional position with a different department. Because I enjoyed teaching ESL to newcomers, I accepted a night class twice a week, but gave it up after a semester because my body could not stand the pain of staying on my feet the whole day, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. with only an hour’s break for lunch and a couple of hours of tutoring between day classes and night classes. My first sessional position lasted a semester; the second position lasted three semesters, then I was let go with the advice that my teaching would be “best suited to university students or high school students–with a more academic focus than students in trades, or newcomers”.

At first, I could have taken that as an insult, because it was, in a way, since I had been able to adapt my teaching style to just about any group in any walk of life; from undergraduate students to professionals looking to improve their skills or learn something new.

On retrospect, I looked at the whole attempt to secure a more regular teaching position as futile. In the first place, I have become extremely light sensitive and noise sensitive after the accident, not to mention experiencing intense back pain that made it almost impossible to stand, let alone walk in different situations; I also have a recurring sharp or dull headache from my concussion. Since the accident, I have had some physiotherapy, but only when I did not have to work–which made it difficult because I had to work most of the time. I have also been on a cocktail of medications for the pain and, for a while, depression, besides other physical conditions needing maintenance meds. Teaching in a public school situation was difficult because the noise would numb all my other senses and I would go home after a day’s work and crawl into bed and still hear the shouting of children.

Another thing that was totally discouraging about teaching in college here was that the majority of students did not seem to care about learning. They did not have the passion to absorb as much as they could from every opportunity offered to them. They did not want to spend time doing research or discovering things on their own and wanted everything served to them on a silver platter. They did not have the basic skills necessary for writing, let alone research, so teaching any form of higher communication became a struggle because they were expected to acquire so much in so little time. Moreover, I discovered only in my 3rd semester that I was not expected to give them assignments to do outside class because they spent 40 hours a week in class–totally unheard of in the Philippines! So they had to learn everything in a packed curriculum within the 30 to 45 hours allotted to each course that I was handling. My learning curve was practically vertical, as I had to implement and deliver set curricula using materials I had not prepared and I had very little time to absorb. My stress levels had risen considerably and I spent all my waking hours not spent on my other jobs just planning the delivery of lessons and trying to figure out the intent of previous instructors with incomplete syllabi and incomplete knowledge of the whole situation. Thankfully, I was working with a team that was mostly very supportive, sympathetic, and helpful. Besides all that, I had to deal with students who questioned my knowledge and expertise–while I had the knowledge and expertise in some things, I was not aware of the methods of implementation, which included an online self-directed course using a textbook company’s software, which worked differently for Macs (which I use) and PCs (which the students used)–hence results would be somewhat different. Also, since I had never used that proprietary software before, going through the course was a first for me and I had to rush familiarizing myself with it even as the students were working on it. Another course used software that was somewhat different from software I was familiar with, hence teaching with the software was an ongoing discovery for me–which the students did not look upon kindly.

For the first time in my life as a teacher, as well, since everyone was on a first-name basis, I experienced an unbelievable amount of lack of respect and hostility from some students, who also tried to influence other students to ignore me and attempt to complete the requirements on their own. I dreaded certain periods so much because I was constantly wracking my brains trying to modify methods and materials to accommodate all their needs and make the learning more pleasant, but enough people had expressed dissatisfaction and even anger that I felt I was always tiptoeing on eggshells. Even if I had class or two where students behaved more maturely and were more intent on learning but neglected to complete their work on time or completely, the discomfort from the other classes overpowered any comfort I could gain from students who sincerely were trying to do their best and learn or relearn a few things.

I was so traumatized by the time it was all over, but I still considered offering my services to the first department (and even sounded off the manager), or I could return to teaching newcomers ESL. Then it struck me.

Why was I trying to chase a career in teaching, which could be so fulfilling and then again not? I knew that no matter who my students were here in this tiny province, they would lack the foundational skills that make a successful college or university student. They lacked respect for education or teachers. They lacked the skills to learn successfully in any situation. They lacked the skills to communicate successfully and effectively in any situation. They lacked the attitudes that make a good learner and rather than look for what (new) things they can do, they spend the time complaining about what they can’t do. Not to mention so much hostility from a student who had sent me over 50 email messages in less than 4 months who became abusive when that student was not getting what that student wanted.

Looking back on the educational system, I have decided that I am happy and fulfilled tutoring student for the LDAPEI because I know I am truly helping them and what they learn and achieve is sometimes phenomenal. I am happy and fulfilled from tutoring private students, teaching or coaching them in writing or art. My Saturdays are filled with private students who come to my home one after the other, and who leave with new or improved skills and knowledge. My summer is productive and busy with enough private students and tutoring to fill several hours of lessons, with enough hours left for me to write, paint, and spend time with a senior friend whom I take out of her nursing home at least once a week, more if there is a concert or other show we can watch. My business as a writing and art tutor is thriving. Best of all, I have absolutely no stress, except when I tell myself I should enforce deadlines for my writing. For the first time in years, I have become truly happy about the work I have chosen. I can breathe easily and relax. I can choose what hours to meet my students and I can choose my students! Lessons are more of mentoring and coaching than teaching a large group.

I have also been teaching as a volunteer instructor at Seniors College for 4 or 5(?) years now and for the past two years, have been teaching literature. We read classical and contemporary stories and writers, analyze them and savour the exercise of looking a characters, plots, and themes from different angles. I do not need to tell my senior students to start working nor do I need to motivate them to speak or analyze the stories or even to read ahead for the next term. They attend because they enjoy the mental exercise, the appreciation of literature, and the broadening of perspectives and horizons as we push the envelope with sometimes very difficult or complex writing, and a sizeable group returns term after term, year after year, looking forward to the next author, the next stories, the next class.

Unless the educational system changes, teachers who are passionate about teaching are climbing an uphill battle. Unless educational managers fully back and support their faculties, they will stifle professional growth, educational freedom, and a have unhappy, abnormally stressed teachers. Unless college students are given sufficient time to learn through exploration, research, and discovery, they will continue to demand spoonfeeding and free passes, the way they were socially promoted throughout their K-12 lives. Unless social promotion is removed, all students will continue to be pushed upward and ahead even if they have not fully grasped the knowledge and skills needed for the next level, or mastered the skills and knowledge taught in their current levels. Unless teachers are given the freedom to mold classes and curriculum according to their teaching styles and the students’ learning styles, they will remain ineffective and stressed from trying to fit themselves into a defective system, look for shortcuts to delivering lessons and teaching skills, and eventually lose their passion from being like round pegs forced into square holes. Unless students learn that failure is part of learning, as is hard work, communication, exploration, research, and discovery, they will never appreciate the value of education and never gain lifelong learning skills.

I will not go back to teaching in a regular classroom in PEI and, possibly, anywhere in Canada because there is so much broken and wrong with the system and still the powers that be play at politics and ignore the need to change, which will only grow more each year, thereby making change more difficult.

I now have the time to write, to create art and crafts, to share my knowledge and mentor those who truly want or need to learn.

I am a writer and an artist and a mentor and I will be so to my last breath.

 

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How to Become a Better Writer: Live to Write

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How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
~ Henry David Thoreau

 

Inexperience is ambitious and time and again, we need to remind inexperienced writers to write about things they know. No matter what genre you write in, the essence of everything you write is based on life. Whether it is an observation of human behavior or a moving description of a place or an event, you cannot write about it from mere observation as well as you can from living the experience. That’s not to say you can’t live or experience things vicariously. A skillful writer might be able to convince readers that they know what they are writing about intimately. It’s similar to a thespian or film actor assuming a character they are not. We know the best actors often immerse themselves in real life situations, studying real people, trying out their characters’ lives when possible, doing what their characters did to replicate the experience, attitude, behavior, feelings, and reactions as realistically as possible. It’s the difference between the beginning of film when everything was filmed inside a studio and you could tell actors were faking the experience and movies today, when you have an actor like Leonardo diCaprio spending days in sub-zero Canadian weather and actually jumping into freezing Canadian waters (despite not being Polar Bear dipping time) to achieve his award-winning portrayal of a revenant in the 2015 film of that title. It’s why a writer who hasn’t experienced any gut-wrenching events will have a harder time convincing readers of the truth of pain, suffering, love, ecstasy, betrayal, and other powerful emotions they’ve never felt. It’s why writers need to experience life in all its diversity and uncertainty, because it’s the only way they can create characters readers will identify with. Settings can easily be recreated, even if you haven’t been to the place, and the ubiquitousness of videos online showing places, people, and events in every imaginable location around the world helps provide writers with fuel for the imagination and for their descriptions. It’s what runs inside people’s heads and hearts that is harder to describe. In fact, even if you have experienced something first-hand, you might not be able to find the words to describe the feelings that rush through you. That is where the writer’s skill and talent comes. Writers are able to find the words to describe the complex emotions that the average person finds indescribable. More skilled wordsmiths find dozens of ways to describe those emotions, besides having a hefty vocabulary, without sounding dogmatic or condescending. The ability to manipulate language to express myriad emotions and experiences, then draw readers into their little worlds and want to be with their characters, is what makes some writers rise above others. That mastery of language and writing comes with much practice—something most young or inexperienced writers will not have. Not that I’m advocating trying out every single thing just so you can write about, even if we know how some writers were brilliant because of mind-enhancing substances. All you need is to keep an open mind, be a keen and avid observer of details, and write, write, write. The sooner you begin, the longer your writing career.

How to Visualize Your Ideas

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How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
~ E.M. Forster

Let’s face it. We’re visual. We respond to visual stimuli probably more than anything else. We see things and like them or hate them. We are affected by the sight of many things. Our minds churn alive and work double time when we see things. It’s no different with words. When we see words, our minds connect them with myriad sensations and ideas. The sight of words is imprinted in our brain and connected to feelings, both good and bad. Words bring up images our brains have already connected them to. Love. Hatred. Sorrow. Cat. Pet. Home. Food. We will each have a similar image in our minds, but the players and details will vary depending on personal experiences. In the same way, writers can think up millions of ideas but until those ideas are written and can be read back juxtaposed among other words and other ideas, we really have no way of knowing how those ideas will make us react and what other ideas they will stimulate. The written words are our markers for whatever it is we think of. They remind us that there is so much our minds contain that is immeasurable until we record it. Then we realize that our minds contain so much more than we can even imagine and, even better, our minds can generate a great deal more when provided with visual stimulus. That’s why visual aids are so popular. Even when planning whatever it is you want to write, it helps to see your ideas in some for or another. You can work with outlines, charts, plots, graphs, timelines, story frames, and just about anything else you can imagine to make your ideas more concrete. The easiest and simplest might just be jotting down your ideas as bullet points. If you jot each bullet point on a sticky note, you can move them around and arrange them in any number of different ways. If you’re comfortable with research, you can use outlines, beginning with brainstorming words, creating a theme sentence, develop lists into word outlines and expand those to sentence outlines. If you’re even more visual, you can draw charts, graphs, or timelines to depict things from your plot to character traits. Story frames are nifty tools as well, if you’re into sketching, or even just to fill with your bullet points. There’s no limit to your imagination and there’s no hard and fast rule regarding what you can use to create your own visual tools. If you can imagine it, you can put it on paper; if it works for you and keeps you writing, it’s effective. That’s all you really need.

How to Revise Your Writing

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You can fix anything but a blank page.
~ Nora Roberts

As a writing teacher, I enjoy nothing more than seeing students produce writing, yet many are reluctant to even start because they worry about how to write their sentences, what to put in, what their style should be, how to handle mechanics. Worse yet, is the student who worries about writing because they say they can’t spell or don’t know how to use quotation marks or when to use commas, semi-colons, and colons. I always tell my students that they should just write without worrying about the technicalities. As long as you are able to put your ideas into words, you’re on your way. All you need to worry about as a writer is to get the writing out, to get the ideas down on the page, because once you’ve written your story down, there’s no limit to how much you can change, correct, and improve your writing until it is ready for your reading public.

Everything anyone writes can be fixed, whether writers do the editing and revision with full knowledge of the technicalities of writing, or leave the majority of the work to their editors. Whether it’s a few punctuation marks or rewriting sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, all writing can be improved. Sometimes it takes just a few changes; other times, the finished work looks nothing like the original writing. It’s still all part of the process of editing and revising. I know a few famous writers who are terrible at spelling, who don’t know how to use punctuation correctly, or who have awful grammar. It’s writers like this who give editors more work. Unfortunately, editors sometimes end up doing a great deal of writing, especially for writers who are prolific and have great story ideas but can’t seem to pick up the mechanics. In such cases, I often think the editor might as well be a co-author, or at least get paid incredibly well. As an English teacher, I try to make writing lessons as educational as possible, but don’t teach mechanics or grammar to high school or adult students because I expect that knowledge to be part of their arsenal. Writers who are insecure about their knowledge of grammar and mechanics of writing should take the initiative to brush up on this basic writing skill. Less experienced writers who truly want to improve their skill will look at everything their editors do to their work because that helps them understand what needs to be changed; editors can also provide them with notes, comments, and explanations for certain changes. Active revision involves writers understanding the reasons for changes, corrections, and suggestions. Even without brush-up lessons, novices can learn much from the process of revision. In fact, even before sending your work to an editor, you should do your own revisions, make corrections, clean up your writing as best you can. Do this and you will find yourself more conscious of your writing, familiar with the mistakes you make, and able to write better later on.

Your work as a writer isn’t over after you’ve written your story. In fact, if you’re particularly fast or inspired, it might take you a lot less time to write than it will to revise your story. You should always keep in mind, though, that there will be nothing to revise, publish, or read if you don’t write in the first place.

Once you’ve written your story, the best thing to do is to set it aside. Let it sleep for at least a week, ideally two weeks to one month. That helps you clear your mind and become somewhat detached from what you’ve written. The longer you stay away from it, the more detached you will be. That way, you can approach your story as if it isn’t yours and be as ruthless as you have to be in the revision process.

Different writers and editors have different approaches to editing and revision. Many times, you’ll hear the recommendation to review content first. Sometimes, I beg to differ. Sometimes, the writing is filled with technical errors that make it extremely difficult to read, let alone make sense out of what there is. The first step I recommend is to clean up whatever you can, as best you can. That means, check your writing for spelling errors, grammar, and mechanical errors. Names should be spelled correctly and consistently throughout. The preferred spelling is American English (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The preferred style book is the MLA Manual of Style or Chicago Manual of Style. If you don’t have access to either (they can both be accessed online) or you want a personal copy, you can get Elements of Style by Strunk & White or Kate L. Turabian’s Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, which is an easier-to-access source based on the Chicago Manual of Style. Penguin Books has a series of writers’ reference books, including the Penguin Writers Manual, the Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar, and the Penguin Guide to Punctuation. There are other resources available, including standard textbooks, that can answer most of your questions on grammar and mechanics.  Once that’s done, you can look at your clean copy with less distractions.

When revising for content, you want to make sure your story has a story arc: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Your events should logically follow the plot or the story arc. Anything that digresses from your story arc can go. Even if you’ve written a novel, your subplots will still be connected to your main plot, either through actions, setting, or characters. You should also check your content for consistency in your timeline, settings, characterization, points of view, even the names used, whether of places, people, or events. Next, check your work for style: in particular, check consistency of voice, syntax, and word choices. Finally, proofread your work one more time before you send it to your editor. In between each step, leave at least a day up to one week before you begin the next step, so that it almost feels as if you are looking at your work with fresh eyes.

As you become more confident in your writing, you will be able to combine steps or tackle them in a different order, something you are more comfortable with. My rationale for recommending this order of editing is: (1) to start with something simple and objective (mechanics) because it helps to clear your mind, before (2) moving on to content and style, which is more complex, and (3) ending with proofreading, which is  relatively simple, hence allowing you to return to a more objective state of mind and giving you that bit of detachment that allows you to let go of your work and send it to your editor.

On Writing: Finishing

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The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.
~ Ernest Hemingway

 

Endings. Whether it’s short or long fiction, sometimes the hardest thing to do with something you’re writing is how to end it. I have heard of many writers who write with an end in mind. In a way, that could make things easier because your only problem would be to figure out how to bring your story to that ending. Of course, sometimes, the characters have a mind of their own and decide to move in a different direction, turning your expected ending into something completely unexpected. Some writers are inspired by a great beginning. I imagine Dickens’s beginning for A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” gave him a huge field to explore, assuming he started that story with the beginning. Not every writer writes purely out of sheer inspiration, and I don’t imagine every great book began with the ending in mind. The more methodical and structured writers will plan their stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end. In fact, that is how I teach students to write their stories. I do emphasize that this is a plan, a blueprint, if you will, for the story, and the final work may not even be anything like the original plan. However, with a clear story arc formed by three distinct parts—beginning, middle, and end—you can proceed along a path that gives your story direction. I’d like to say that, most of the time, it should and will work out as planned, and it does, especially if you build on the basic parts and not lose sight of them. As you write, though, it’s important to be flexible and adapt to how your story develops. Sometimes, you might see a better ending or a more effective climax; or, as you write your ending, you realize you need to revise your beginning. That’s all to be expected. The worst thing that can happen is when you insist on writing the story the way you planned it even if the other story elements aren’t fitting in as planned. I’m not saying you should ditch the whole story, maybe you should just change it and work with what is getting written. You might end up with two completely different stories. When writing a novel, it becomes a little more complicated because you are dealing with several characters, several subplots, several scenes. Sometimes, some of the characters threaten to take over the lead, sometimes the subplots become larger than the main plot. There will always be a great deal of adjusting and adaptation as the smaller stories develop and the characters interact. No matter what ending you plan, once your characters come alive, your novel will have a life of its own and will continue. Unless you have excellent control over it, the tendency will be for that novel to beget a sequel and another until it becomes a series. That is how sequels, trilogies, quadrilogies, quintilogies, and so on have become so popular. Neither reader nor author wants the story to end. However, end it must, and if it can only happen by killing your favorite characters, then so be it. What is important is that the novel is written, ended, and completed. That’s quite the accomplishment, especially considering there must be thousands of novels that writers began to write that were never finished.

We often hear our elders, teachers, mentors, and parents, no less, to always ‘finish what you’ve started.’ In a world where everything seems to get shorter and shorter, fiction being no exception, it seems harder to complete a novel when you’re not even sure people will be reading it through and through. Nonetheless, there is a market for novels, with upwards of 50,000 novels published in the US alone. The number is an approximation, based on 2007 statistics, and if a projection is made worldwide, there might be upwards of 80,000 novels published each year in English alone. Top sellers reach circulation numbers of at least 1,000 books each week to get into the NYT (New York Times) bestseller list, which is the most significant and probably most prestigious bestseller list to be on. PEI bestseller status is achieved with a sale of 900 books and numbers are greater in the rest of Canada. This is actually good news for writers because we know there are still readers out there, so go ahead, write that novel, but make sure you finish what you started. As a writer, I am living proof that it’s easy to start a novel–I must have started about a dozen already–but it’s nowhere nearly as easy to finish one. Poetry, short fiction, and creative non-fiction are child’s play in comparison. I have to admit length is a huge factor. Anything else but a novel can be done in a single sitting. (Incidentally, I’m only speaking of creative writing here, as opposed to academic writing. Academic books also take a very long time to write, certainly more than one sitting.) Poetry might take a few minutes. Short fiction, depending on how short, can take anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours–with the exception of the longest short stories every written–forty pages of print takes more than a couple of hours. Essays and all other forms of creative non-fiction can also be completed within an hour or less. But a novel! To write 35,000-50,000 for a children’s novel, 80,000 words, which is the standard length for a YA novel, or over 100,000 words for a 200-page novel can easily take 100 hours, assuming you can write 1,000 words per hour. If you type fast and the ideas are just pouring out, you might get out more than 1,000 words per hour–that’s about 4 pages of print, double-spaced. So if you were to write just an hour a day at that rate, you’d have your 200-page novel in about 50 days; a month or less if you wrote two hours a day at that rate; if you’re a full time writer and spend at least 6 hours a day writing, you might have a novel in half a month. Pretty impressive, but you’d have to be a very methodical or very manic writer, or a combination of both–which is what I’d say most writers are. If your aim is to write a book a year, aiming for 1,000 words per day, or about an hour of writing, can get you enough content to fill a 200 pages in a couple of months, leaving you the rest of the year to edit and revise–which really usually takes a lot more work than the original writing. Unless you’re a very methodical writer and have everything planned out down to the last scene so that practically all you need to do when you’re writing the book is putting in the dialogue, or whatever other method highly disciplined writers do. The point is to write, write as often as you can, and aim to finish what you started. Otherwise, you’ll get a dozen opening pages that will, in all likelihood, be chopped out anyway. It’s time for me to take my advise.

On Writing: Writing Retreats and Inspiration

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And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
~ Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Happy Easter to all!

As a teacher in Catholic institutions, certain things were a given, including annual retreats, often held during the Lenten season, which was something I actually welcomed back then. Retreats are a great way to withdraw from the rest of the world to collect your thoughts and, as a writer, retreats are a welcome time to devote to nothing but the creative process. My writing group recently took a one-day write-in, not quite the weekend retreat we take each year, but a whole day to take a break from our daily hustle-and-bustle just to write with a bunch of like-minded individuals. It’s a wonderful break that I look forward to because when I write at home, there are too many distractions. Not to mention, editing jobs that require a different type of attention. It’s wonderful to just share the creative energy that electrifies the air when 10 people are in one place all writing. It’s also wonderful to share a little bit about what you’re doing, what you think, how you write. It’s a great way to connect with fellow writers who understand your little idiosyncrasies because they also have theirs. That is why I look forward to those little writing “retreats.” They break down the stereotype of the solitary writer. What people don’t realize is that, while writers mostly write alone, they are far from solitary. Writers, like any other creative person, need a creative energy that they get from being among people. They might not necessarily interact with those people or even know them well, but it is precisely those people who feed them with ideas and inspiration to write. People are inspiring and people inspire the imagination. While poets can shoot off the most impressive and sensual combination of words and phrases at the sight of a sunset or a flower petal or a leaf floating on a slip of wind, or even a shoe lost in the mud, prose writers, especially fiction writers, need to see and experience people, life, the whole teeming humanity of it in all its splendor or ignominy. That is what writers write about. Life and everything in, about, and around it. And when we know that others also struggle in their writing, we are encouraged and inspired to continue because success does eventually come, albeit in a varying degrees.

All writing comes from life. That is the simple bare truth about it. No matter how wild your imagination, it is and will always be something about life—and yes, death is part of life because any writing about dead people is in reference to their lives, the people they left behind, the people they meet in death or the after-life or whatever you want to call it. Fantasy writing, no matter how otherworldly or fantastic is about life because your creatures and characters are personified—they speak, think, feel, and behave pretty much the way humans do; and even their inhumanity and non-human behavior is based on what you have seen, observed, read, or researched about. Armed with that knowledge, there really is nothing off limits as far as what there is for you to write about. All you need is one little nugget of truth and a lot of imagination. Sometimes, you worry about not having enough imagination or a creative enough imagination. Sometimes, all you need is the power of observation and the ability to put your ideas down in sentences. Writing, in many ways, helps you make sense of what is happening around you. Every single day, you are bombarded with information and sensory input. All you have to do is put it together like a puzzle. Your pieces can come from anywhere. You might have a character with traits from a dozen different people you actually know or just one or two. You might create a setting that’s a little bit of a dozen different places you’ve been or just a one. You might create a history and future for a single event you read about in the news or witnessed at the bus station. It might be the woman in the line-up at the supermarket checkout; it might be the stray kitten in the gutter; it might be the well-dressed man with the fedora at the bookstore; it might be odd plastic bag swirling with an eddy of dried leaves in the middle of an intersection. All you need is one little prompt, a lot of imagination, and the courage to put pen to paper and write away.

Should you write in first person?

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I do not advise my students to write in the first person, especially when they are just beginning to write fiction. Writing in the first person is especially difficult because the unskilled writer often tends to become an omniscient narrator, which is really an impossibility if you are narrating in the first person. As a first person narrator, you can only see what the narrator sees, experiences, and thinks. Your first person narrator can never know what other people are thinking or feeling except from what they observe or are told. Your first person narrator can never see through walls or what is happening where the narrator is not present. The biggest problem this presents is if your narrator is not even the lead character, because then, the narrator would not be able to say what the lead character is doing in the narrator’s absence. This is not so much a problem in a short story, where the narrator can be present and in the company of the lead character throughout the duration of the story, or at least the majority of it. This is more of a problem in a novel, because it’s really possible for the lead character to be away from the narrator for a prolonged time, in which case the narrator cannot report anything that is happening to the lead character at a particular time unless the knowledge becomes available to the narrator. This is very good for novels about personal struggles or soul-searching.

The easiest point of view to handle and use is the omniscient narrator. As an omniscient narrator, you can see what everyone does at all times. You know what everyone is thinking and feeling, and you even hear what everyone says. Hence, you don’t encounter the problem of “head surfing,” which is a problem encountered when writing in the third person limited or first person perspectives. This is really good for novels with many characters and plots of adventure. The third person limited uses a narrator who can see only inside one character’s head, usually the main character. The narrator can only observe and report about other characters externally. This kind of narrator is a good choice for detective stories or mystery stories.

The Writer’s Ego

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I almost always urge people to write in the first person. … Writing is an act of ego and you might as well admit it.
~William Zinsser

 

Even if writers do not realize it, writing is their way of putting themselves out for the world to see. It’s a way of saying, “Here I am, world. This is me.” They might think they aren’t revealing anything of themselves in their writing, especially if they write about things other than themselves, yet everything they write carries their mark. Little bits and pieces of themselves, their feelings, their beliefs, their values, their choices, their preferences, even their hopes and frustrations, show up in their writing. Not that the readers will always know or find out, but those who do know the writer will know what parts of the written works are really parts of the writer. Fiction writers are probably the best at hiding who they really are in their works because they can put themselves in several different characters with no one character really reflecting who they are. Even the settings of their stories can seem so remote from their reality, the truth becomes unrecognizable except to the most discerning and critical scholar. Poets, on the other hand, reveal themselves in their poetry over and over again, quite simply because poetry is an expression of the self. Whereas prose can be objective and distant, poetry is highly personal and subjective. Poetry is the voice of the soul and for writers to express themselves in poetry is to bare their souls to the world. Either way, writing, more than any other professional pursuit, is a public declaration that the writer is not afraid to let the world know the person behind the work. Even when writing incognito, the writer knows there will be feedback, and it is a rare writer, especially at the start of a career, who will not care what their reading public says. It is exactly that feedback that convinces writers to persevere or, possibly, select another vocation, because writing, as an avocation, is merely dabbling in the art. The person whose vocation is writing will do everything to become completely immersed in writing, to be a writer through and through, to put the id, the ego, and the superego into words.

Using Details in Writing

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You do not have to explain every single drop of water contained in a rain barrel. You have to explain one drop—H2O. The reader will get it.
~George Singleton

When told to provide descriptions and details, inexperienced writers often tend to include too many details, details that have no purpose or that are too much information. How do you know just how much detail to include? My first rule for writing details is to be exact. No matter what you are describing, use the most exact words you can find. Use appropriate terms while avoiding too much jargon, especially if your jargon limits readership severely or makes your writing of interest only to those with the same technical knowledge you are writing about. The exact term can mean the difference between half a dozen words and a single word or two. It also allows you to get directly to the point without digressing in explanations that are not necessary.

The next rule you need to remember is to make sure the details you provide are necessary and important to the story. You might describe a tree and want to write about the multicolored shading of the multitude of leaves; how the branches might twist and turn and scars from nature pockmark the bark; how a squirrel is tucked into an old knot that has rotted out, or the roots jut out of the ground like knees and tentacles. All these descriptions are good and create a wonderful image of a tree, but why would your reader need to see it that way? Does one of the characters see it that way? Unless a character in your story has intimate knowledge of the tree and needs to see all those details—maybe because the character is a botanist or a birdwatcher or a treehugger or someone stuck in that tree for long enough to observe all the little details—there is no need for that kind of detail. If it doesn’t involve the characters, cut it out. If it doesn’t contribute to moving the plot ahead, cut it out. If it doesn’t enhance the reader’s understanding of the characters or the plot, cut it out. If it doesn’t contribute to the overall mood or tone of the story, cut it out.

When you do include details, try to create a bigger picture for things that are encountered as part of a larger setting: a barrel of water instead of raindrops that fill the barrel; a forest instead of individual trees; a blanket of snow instead of hundreds of individual snowflakes. For things characters encounter intimately—for instance, a character who is having the worst time trying to fall asleep will notice everything, from the rustling of leaves outside the window to the lumps in his pillow and the creases on the sheets under him. On the other hand, if a character crashes into bed and falls right asleep, he’s not going to notice whether the sheets are silk or jersey, if the pillows are flat or fluffy, if the birds are chirping outside his window, or even if the bathroom floor is filthy.

Inexperienced writers also have a tendency to want to explain as much as they can. It is important to remember that readers also know a lot of things and it isn’t necessary to explain everything. Unless a character has a very unusual way of putting together a sandwich, there’s no need to explain how a sandwich is made step by step. You need to consider what is common knowledge and assume that your readers will know what is generally known. There’s no need to explain how a car is driven or how a house is built unless it is an unusual car. Even science fiction stories set in space ships don’t go into great detail about how the space ship operates, unless characters are involved in the operation thereof.

It’s exactly what I tell my writing students when creating character profiles and settings. You can write a complete character profile including biographical details, a detailed physical description, and a psychological profile, but not all of that will appear in the story; even if you eventually reveal everything about your character, you certainly should not dump all that information on your readers in a single logorrheic discharge. In the same way we don’t discover everything about a person or place in a single sitting or a single visit, you should only reveal as much details as are encountered and necessary at any given time. Many times, your details will and should only be part of a sentence or two, rarely a paragraph, certainly not a full page. Any physical descriptions should also be interspersed with actions and dialogue. A character’s long hair might be revealed when he tosses his head and his hair flips backwards like a horse’s mane. A weakness for chocolate might be revealed by a bowl of assorted chocolate candies on a character’s kitchen counter or as a centerpiece on a table. It all ties in with the art of showing rather than telling. Filling your prose with descriptions leads with a tendency to tell rather than to show. If you want to create minute detailed descriptions of everything, you might want to try your hand at poetry or creative non-fiction.

Too much detail can be tedious and lead a story away from from its plot. Too many explanations can be tiring and leave nothing to the imagination. They can also burden the reader with too much information. Sometimes, it’s really better to leave things to the reader’s imagination. That’s one of the good things about reading–it stimulates the imagination, and your writing should aim to do that. If you want to explain things, in extensive detail, you might want to try writing non-fiction instead, or instructional materials. Sometimes, you need to give the reader the benefit of the doubt. Readers don’t pick up your book or story knowing nothing. You need to trust that your reader is already knowledgeable about many things, which is why they’re able to read fiction. Unless, of course, you’re writing encyclopedia entries–even then, you need to assume the readers already have certain basic knowledge. Try to think the way the characters would. Describe and explain things according to how the characters see them or experience them. Provide information that will be important to the characters and that will help your characters deal with their problems. Whether or not your character finds the information immediately or later in your story, you have set things up in a world your characters live in, as opposed to blending your world with your story world. If your characters don’t need explanations for certain things, your readers don’t need them either. If your details don’t help your characters or the story, your readers don’t need them. Those are your ultimate cues for how much to include in your fiction.

There’s Always Something to Write About

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We’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. … Most of our lives are basically mundane and dull, and it’s up to the writer to find ways to make them interesting.
~John Updike, WD

I would not quickly agree with Updike that we’re past the age of heroes and hero kings. While our current world might not warrant wandering about on horses or in armor with swords at our sides or even bows slung across our backs, we have our chariots and our props, tools of the trade that we use to struggle through life. Probably the biggest challenge in contemporary literature is finding characters that are interesting enough to write about. We forget that people are interesting and as writers, we need to learn to bring out everything that is interesting about them. In my memoir writing classes, I have encountered people saying they have nothing to write about because nothing interesting has happened in their lives. Yet, as I guide them with tips, techniques, questions, and prompts, they suddenly find that there are so many interesting things that have happened in their lives. Now, they have more than enough to actually write about. I, on the other hand, have the quandary of what to write about first. I have encountered so many interesting people, places, and events in my modest and not too short life thus far, and the accumulation of memories is startling, when I think of it. People don’t need to be highly imaginative to become writers. They just need to learn how to use vivid descriptions, picturesque language, detailed imagery. It’s the details that make things more interesting. Remember when someone, possibly a grandparent or an uncle or aunt or even your parents, told a story that everyone enjoyed? They remember details that involve all our senses–sights, smells, sounds, textures, feelings–every little detail adds to creating a picture, a painting of something that happened, and if the action is as vividly described, then the painting becomes a movie clip or a staged scene, and when enough of those are strung together, you have a living, breathing movie in words. Isn’t writing grand?