Is Journaling Writing?

journaling

Is Journaling Writing?

Yes and obviously, journaling is writing if writing is strictly laying words down in a comprehensible string.

But I want to talk about journaling and writing fiction.

What is journaling?

I think of journaling as an episodic or regular recording of your thoughts, feelings, events, etc. A natural way for writers to think through and about the current of their lives.

I know some people journal every day. I tend to journal about once a week—whether through a paucity of life or thoughts, I leave you to decide. And my journaling is decidedly of the pedestrian kind. I mostly write about how my week has gone, who has pissed me off (often accompanied by a pithy and well-reasoned analysis of their failings), what is worrying me, what I can do about it, what I can’t…I’m sure you get the picture.

Although I don’t consider it writing with a capital W, I still find it very useful, mostly in a mental health way. It allows me to vent my spleen on annoying people thereby avoiding doing so in person. It helps me work through a problem in my life, slowing down enough to be able to consider options rather than react in a knee-jerk manner. It calms me.

But I don’t consider this weekly dump as writing in the fiction sense.

Leading to fiction

You may journal or want to as a road to writing fiction. If that is your intent, then you may use a different approach. Rather than recording your life as it evolves, you may elaborate on big thoughts that you want to capture in words. New ideas for a fiction piece might come out of this.

It can also be fertile ground for speculations on how the story you are working on might develop, or thinking through a niggle you have about it. Snatches of dialogue or description that might be useful might also occur.

It seems some people seem to be able to combine my kind of journaling with falling into fiction. I haven’t been able to do it, but if you can, all to the good.

But don’t be lulled into thinking you are WRITING if you just do my kind of journaling, no matter how frequently. The only thing it is likely to give you is better typing and an ease with words (the latter not to be sneezed at).

As avoidance

In fact, I have found that journaling can be an excellent way to avoid writing fiction. Either by satisfying the need to play with words or, in my case, wasting time which I had intended to devote to fiction. In fact, at some writing retreats, I have written pages and pages (current record: 10) of anything but fiction. I’ve written about writing, about how much I would like to be writing at this moment, speculating why I am not writing, torturing myself on my inadequacies as a writer. Interspersed with charming word pictures of the gopher under the cottage or the ducks on the lake. Or any other topic which will assure that I don’t focus on fiction writing.

So, if you are journaling now, I encourage you to continue. But unless you are among the lucky few whose journaling turns into fiction, don’t confuse the two. Set aside time for journaling for your mental health by all means. But also time for creating magic.

The Problem with English Lit Courses

lit

The Problem with English Lit Courses

Off the top, I differentiate between English Lit and Creative Writing courses. The latter is more closely aligned with this blog. English Lit courses focus primarily on reading the Great Literature of The English Language and talking about why it’s so great.

Great not being synonymous with ripping stories, by the way.   A friend and I once decided that to spend one lunch-time a week reading the Great Literature we’d missed. Unfortunately, we started with Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Fifty pages a week was our goal. To reach it, I had to sit in a hard-backed chair to keep awake.  That I had been unsuccessful was evident when my friend asked, “What did you think of the ship sinking at the end?”

“The ship sank?”

So concluded that pursuit.

English Lit is reductionist

My beef with English Lit for aspiring writers is that the novels are studied by parsing them to death. The devices and metaphors used; how they contribute to the major theme; the effect of the time period and context on the novel’s shape, etc.

Which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Certainly you need to be able to recognize the component parts of a novel and the effect of authorial choices on the shape of the story to inform how you create your own.

But because you’ve gotten adept at identifying devices, doesn’t mean you can use them in your own writing. It doesn’t teach you how to create them or when to use them and sometimes even more importantly, when not to.

And gives the impression of fait accompli

The other objection is that a published novel is of course a finished product which doesn’t, if it works, show all the doubt, re-writing, reshaping, and struggle that had gone into it.

I find it prompts one of two reactions to aspiring writers, both bad. The first is okay, I got it. Now I can do it. These writers are unprepared for the mastery of technique they must achieve nor the amount of sloughing. They can be put off and abandon their aspirations.

Even worse are would-be authors who read a novel which has been cut, recut, and polished into the jewel it is and think I could never do this. There’s no point in trying. They don’t realize that the author started off with the same unprepossessing lump of rock that they presently have. They compare their unfinished product to the finished one and despair.

No room for magic

However, my real objection is that English Lit courses leave no room for magic which is the real reward of writing. Oh, the magic of the finished novel might be acknowledged. But not the magic of creation which is the joy of writing. It’s not magic all the time, unfortunately, and you don’t control when it visits, but when it does, it reminds me that this is what I was meant to do.

Okay, I may have set up English Lit courses as a bit of a straw horse. Their objective, to be fair, is not to make you a great writer but to study those who are. You still need to work at technique, and write, write, write. And thereby make room for magic.

Developing a Theme

theme

Developing a Theme

Most great novels have a theme, whether intended by the author or deduced by admiring readers is sometimes hard to tell. Theming your novel can enhance its appeal to your readers.

What is a theme?

There is of course the literary definition and the on-line Masterclass is an excellent source on that aspect. But, for me, a theme in a novel works when it gives me a feeling that I have learned something about myself or the world which is deep and true.  It might follow the typical literary themes of courage, death, friendship, revenge, or love but more important than the label is the visceral understanding I experience. In fact, I have finished novels where I know I have been changed even though I have trouble putting into words what I’ve learned.

Examples

Naturally, and reasonably, you want to know when I have experienced it to see if you agree with my analysis. I’ll do a short list with a note on how they moved/informed me. But I really want to focus on how to do it.

1984 by George Orwell. Even if it’s hopeless, you can stand up for what you believe.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Faith requires sacrifice and discipline.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. A blinkered view can distort your life.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. How my life should be (turned out to be completely false but hey, I was ten at the time).

Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow—enough said

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I can counterfeit the gold and then believe it true.

A theme can’t be force-fed

A novel with a theme can have a powerful and even lasting effect on your reader so of course you want to have one.

But as I have mentioned before, I don’t think it works to decide a priori the path the novel will take. Doing so can, and often does, produce a stilted, forced result which hits the reader over the head with this is the theme, get it?, rather than allowing her to gradually come to understand.

This is where magic comes in

To create a theme, I first think you have to open yourself to the magic lurking in your story.

Writing the first draft. In the original writing, look for the moments where you’re getting the sense of I think there’s something here. But don’t stop to try to figure out what it is, just keep writing. Write and write. Every once and a while, you’ll probably get that same feeling but just note it and keep writing.

It’s important to keep everything at the feeling stage. Don’t try to name it or the theme. Just write as much as you can from that emotion.

Editing the manuscript.  Once the first draft is completed, read it over to identify where that unnamed feeling occurs. Spend some time figuring out what these passages have in common—this is likely where your theme lies.

Strengthening the theme. Now that you understand what the novel means to you, go back over the manuscript to see where you can add or tweak scenes to reinforce the theme in a non-hit-over-the-head way.

So, in short, don’t look for your theme—let it find you.

Make the Magic Look Easy

magic

Make the Magic Look Easy

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience. The speaker is not very experienced. She stumbles over the words. And mumbles. She loses her place and looks distressed. Are we taking in her message? No, we’re focused on the speaker. Worrying about and for her, identifying with her unhappy situation.

A comparable situation occurs when writing and that’s what I want to talk about.

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

In How Fiction Works, its author James Wood discusses Gustave Flaubert’s mastery of fiction, notably in his 1857 novel, Madame Bovary. Wood points out that such was Flaubert’s dexterity that the reader only notices what Flaubert wants her to register without necessarily realizing it. This is part of the magic—the trick only works if nobody sees how it is done.

And it has to look easy. The work put into it isn’t noticed. Rather like a gymnastics star. We thrill at the ease and confidence she displays on the uneven bars. We only imagine the hard work when she fails to complete her routine successfully.

Magic sometimes isn’t that magic

As I have mentioned in other posts, I don’t know how to create writing magic on demand. But I think I know some things that are likely to increase the probability that magic will visit. And they’re not magic at all.

Master your craft. Firstly, don’t emulate the unpracticed speaker. It is essential that you do the background hard work of mastering your craft. Handling complex techniques such as unreliable narrators and weaving subplots which enhance and do not distract from your main story, need to flow effortlessly for your reader no matter how difficult you found it to pull it off.

Sweat the details.  Readers are annoyed at spelling mistakes, grammar errors, incorrectly used words, and a general lack of professionalism when it comes to the very basics of communicating, never mind trying to make magic. You can’t transport your reader to exciting realms if she’s thinking, shouldn’t that be ‘affect’ not ‘effect?’

Don’t show off. Like using complex and multi-syllabic words when plain ones will do. Remember what Winston Churchill said about that:

Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words when short are best of all.

Same thing goes for sentences. If you make your reader toil to unravel intricate and convoluted sentences, that’s where the attention will be rather than on the marvelous story you’ve created.

Naturally, and as always with writing, there are certainly exceptions to this dictum. If the intent of your writing is primarily to showcase the beauty of the language and your mastery of it, you may be okay.

Sometimes it’s worth it but otherwise it’s just showing off of the I’m-smarter-than-you variety.

Is that all there is?

I know, I know, fairly pedestrian answer. I imagine that you were hoping I had some guaranteed way to ensure magic. And easy magic to boot.

Nope. The only way I know is to work at getting good at writing. As I wrote in the Muse and the Piano Tuner, what you have to do is show up and play. And every once in a while, magic strikes.

Do Your Readers Have to Like Your Heroine?

heroineDo Your Readers Have to Like Your Heroine?

In the last post, I maintained that you have to like or at least understand your heroine. So, it seems redundant to ask if your readers need to like her, too.

But the surprising answer is NO. Not if your heroine is compelling.

What is compelling?

In The 9.17% Solution, one of my protagonists was Jamie, a manipulative, scheming, damaged young man who plots his way up the corporate ladder.

One reader of an early draft announced, “I hate Jamie.”

Enough to sink the heart of any writer. “Did it make you want to stop reading?” I asked tentatively.

To which he replied, “No, I had to keep going to make sure the bastard got what he deserved.”

Writer heart started repumping.

That was when I realized that while it’s probably preferable your readers find your heroine sympathetic, it isn’t always necessary. You can do away with this requirement completely if she is compelling. That is, your reader wants to keep reading about her.

How do I make my heroine compelling?

Obvious next question: how? You’re gonna throw up your hands when I say I don’t know. I don’t know how I made Jamie compelling or whether he would be so for every reader. Perhaps the sense that Jamie was racing to an inevitable and unavoidable doom? Perhaps his flashes of humanity?

I bored everyone in my life for weeks, asking them to think of compelling literary characters. (Movies don’t count because the viewer has access to many more than the written word on which to base their judgement.)

It was tough. Anne of Green Gables? Scarlett O’Hara?

What it came down to is no paint-by-numbers list of characteristics or techniques. There didn’t seem to be a commonality among the suggestions; nor did everyone agree with every candidate.

But they all agreed that compelling characters made them want to find out what happened to the heroine even if she was despicable.

Again, it comes down to magic

I was forced to conclude that this is the magic that is writing.

You put the work into learning your craft. Showing when needed and telling when not.  Supporting the plot with description rather than distracting. Growing your characters. All to create a continuous dream in which your reader can reside.

Beyond that, you get at the core of the story by telling the emotional rather than literal truth. And every day, you are naked on the page. Bringing your unflinching self to writing, no matter how shameful, wicked, or shocking it might seem to you.

And then, you hope for the best. Hope that the work, the honesty, and the caring will be rewarded with writing that nobody can put down. That magic will strike.