Friday, October 28, 2016

Dreams--The Delight and Danger of Using Dreams in Your Story

Dreams are a big part of my personal life--I've recorded my dreams since I was in college.  But I use them very sparingly in my writing.  Why? 


Have you ever been with a friend who is telling you about a dream?  On and on it goes, one weird scene after another, incredibly meaningful to the dreamer but hard to make sense of if you weren't there. 

That's why they're not used a lot in published writing.  They are part of the backstory of a character's life, but a wobbly, illogical part of that backstory, which readers rarely can make sense of.

Dreams ARE good to work with in early drafts.  If you ask a character about her dreams, you can get some cool images about her inner life.  I often plug them in as placeholders, markers for me to remember to bring in meaning just here.  I try not to lean on them to reveal meaning in final drafts because they read like a shortcut.  Like a device.

Devices are something a writer employs with certain purpose, to get a certain effect.  Used skillfully, devices are amazing tools.  But if the reader discerns the magician behind the magic of a device, it ceases to be magical and interesting. 

If you love dreams (like I do) and want to use them in your fiction or memoir, here are some things to watch out for:

1.  Since dreams read as shortcuts to meaning, they can feel to the reader as if the author is standing on the sidelines, telling us "This is what her angst is all about" or "Here's why he has to be a hero right now."  Ask yourself, Why do I need this shortcut?  Why not show the meaning through developed scene?  Granted, more work involved, but the payoff in tension and reader engagement is worth it.

2.  If you use dreams as placeholders, a kind of mental note that you intend to show meaning but can't think of how at the moment, be sure to add a clear note to your revision checklist to scan for all dreams.  Most writers don't realize how often they use them!  Plan to rework the majority into scene. 

3.  In some genres of fiction, and in some memoir, dreams can denote a bizarre parallel to reality--alternated states.  Or prophetic dreams can be useful for foreshadowing.  But again, watch out for overuse.  These stand out, and too many make your reader stand back and disengage.

Your weekly writing exercise is to check out this great article about the top ten uses of dreams in literature.  Note the kind of book cited.  If yours is similar, and you're eager to use a dream here and there, study how the author did it.  What transitions are used between the dream and the present-time story?  How long is the dream excerpt?  

Friday, October 21, 2016

Using Poetry Even If You're Not a Poet--What Poems Do for the Creative Brain

I'm only a marginal poet.  I've had one poem published and written maybe ten others, kept in a drawer.  But I love reading poetry.  It does something weird and wonderful to my brain.

In honor of Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize for "having created new poetic expressions," I wanted to share this poetry experience and an exercise for this week. 
Recently a poet friend moved.  I visited her and took home two bags full of poetry books.   Collections from some of my favorite poets but also books on why we write and read poetry.  I'd just sent in my novel and was waiting for agent feedback so I felt kind of dry--desert-like, actually.  I wanted to get moving on the next book, all set up in Scrivener and waiting for me.  But I needed a little inspiration.

Rainy day, perfect for poetry, I thought.  I settled down with tea and the stack of books. 

Midway through the first volume, I had to get up and get a pen and paper.  Ideas for my own writing were flooding in--vastly different from the poems I was browsing but somehow inspired by them.  A small description of evening by Jane Kenyon made me remember evenings my character might have lived through, complete with the way the late summer light slanted into a room.   Stanley Kunitz urged me to look for the constellation of images that follow every writer, and I began to think of this for my characters too.  What images followed them around in their lives?

Your weekly writing exercise is to grab a poetry book and spend twenty minutes immersing yourself.  You may not like the poems--or any poetry, for that matter.  But the rhythm of poems may unlock something beautiful in your brain.

If you'd like to do this right now, click on these links:

30 great poems everyone should read

Friday, October 14, 2016

Paragraph and Line Lengths--How They Affect Your Story's Pacing


I never paid much attention to paragraph or sentence lengths.  I just wrote, felt satisfied if I got the story down.  Then, in the late eighties, I got a job as a editor at a publishing company in the Midwest. 

As an editor, I noticed that I had a visual reaction to a person's writing:  how it looked on the page, how dense or light.  How much white space or how much text.  Even before I began to read, I had a sense of whether I would be engaged, just by how the text looked.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Kid Lit! Writing for Different Young Readers--Who Is Your Best Audience?

Many writers want to write for kids.  They raised their own children on books, maybe thought I can tell a good story, too!  Or they love to illustrate for kids and want to fashion a story around their illustration.  I get lots of questions about kid lit, what ages to gear a particular story to, how to sell your children's, middle-grade, or young adult book these days.