Writing Gratitude Countdown (4): The Gift of Feedback

Worker in orange vest squeegees windshield of ICE train in Dresden Train Station.
Who helps you see your work clearly? © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This is the fourth post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. It’s a series about people who’ve helped me on my writing journey so far. I’m taking a moment to say a heartfelt thank you!

(You can find earlier posts here: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, 3. The Gift of Hospitality.)

4. The Gift of Feedback: the value of clear sight

a. How critique works: The earliest critique group I can remember was in high school, in my Creative Writing class. I think my beloved and brilliant writer friend Zina got me to sign up. Mrs. Chloe Vroman and her Creative Writing class at Provo High School. This is where I learned that it’s easier to see inside someone else’s story than inside your own. And that the right critique can open up the story for the writer. I wish I’d said thank you before it was too late! 😦

b. How a group works: Smart and funny Colin Ryan led me to my first critique group in Vermont, led by lovely, hospitable Margie Sims. As well as sharing her writing expertise, she modelled simple organization, communication, snacks, structure. Later, the group became a collaboration between me and the industrious and highly capable JoAnn Carter. All of them taught me how to make a safe space for writers.

c. How writers can sabotage their own success and how critique partners (CP’s) can save them: At the Ockenga Writers Publishing Workshop, I found another group of thoughtful, generous readers. (I wrote more about the Workshop here. My dear friend Eileen first invited me there and it changed my life.) My patient CP’s put up with my unconscious but annoying thrashing* until I finally learned to stop it.

We encouraged each other to keep on going and believe in each others’ work. A vote of confidence is so valuable! Thanks a million million Girard and Jeanne Doyon and Lisa Morrison!

*thrashing–the neverending revision of a single piece of work, generally prompted by waiting for someone else to tell you what your story should be about.

d. How critique groups raise the bar: I’ve written about how I became a part of The Winged Pen here. This group of power writers is the epitome of “set your sights high.”

I call this the calculus factor after the feeling I had when the girl next to me in calculus class asked questions until she understood everything on the chalkboard. It opened my eyes: “Oh, we’re actually supposed to know this so we can use it.”

Gratitude is an interesting lens. The more I look through it, the more I see how I’ve been helped. When writing is a wall that blocks the way forward, it’s useful to remember what kinds of help are possible.

Another unexpected benefit: it’s fun to reconnect to people I’ve lost track of. I’m enjoying the successes of my long-lost friends and mentors! Well done, all of you! It’s an honor to know you.

Happy writing!

So that’s my fourth installment of gratitude for my writing journey. (The earlier posts are: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission, and 3. The Gift of Hospitality.) More to come!

If you’d like to share about people who helped you see your own work clearly, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear about it!

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A parable of physics teaching assistants: elegance, battlefields, and intimacy

Painting of 18th century fencers in knee breeches and gown.
Fencing with an unfamiliar foe. Source: “Fencing Match between St.-Georges and ‘La chevalière D’Eon'” on April 9, 1787, by Abbé Alexandre-Auguste Robineau (1747–1828) – http://www.royalcollection.org.uk, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11260912

As an undergraduate, I took physics because I wanted to go to medical school. Physics promptly took over the structure of my week. Three lectures, a lab, and a recitation (where a teaching assistant went over the homework problems with us), and later an afternoon or two of tutoring. Needless to say, I wasn’t good at it.

The recitation was taught in the first semester by an American graduate student who clearly understood the material and had taken time to organize it for us. He wrote the homework problem answers on the chalkboard in neat and intelligent writing.

We dutifully copied down his elegant solutions, but inwardly, we despaired. These answers had a flawless surface that kept us out. They weren’t answers we would ever come up with. He was a physicist’s physicist.

The second semester’s recitation was taught by a graduate student from India or maybe Pakistan. His English was different than American English and elegant wasn’t the word for his methods. He attacked the homework problems as if they were hostile.

His answers scrawled all over the chalkboard and left a battlefield of cancelled terms, diagrams, and false attempts. He took us inside the homework problems and taught us to fight our way out. He was a physicist for the common man.

I speak German, some days better than others, but I’ll never be able to engage in the delicate verbal fencing that is the favorite sport of my English-speaking relatives. In German, I’m forced to be much more functional and to express my feelings and ideas in a straightforward fashion. Verbal asides or literary allusions are a thing of the past.

Before I moved to Germany three years ago, I thought it would probably be good for me to be forced to say what I meant. Oblique can be charming. Banter can be exhilarating. Complicated can be satisfying. But a flawless shield of language keeps everyone at a distance.

What I’ve noticed is this: When I’m slower to speak, I listen more, and the listening gives the conversation a sense of intimacy. When I stop striving for elegance and accept my limitations, I hear the conversation’s heartbeat. It’s more satisfying, because I’m on the inside looking out. I’m starting to appreciate this unexpected gift.

Like my international physics teaching assistant, story invites the reader inside an experience. This is what it feels like to face a dragon. This is how it feels when you use the magic sword. This is how you seize victory from the jaws of defeat. This is what victory feels like.


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Why people can’t hear you OR how to write wicked dialogue

Marie Forleo’s video, 5 Reasons People Don’t Take You Seriously, shows how we get in the way of our message, and what to do about it.

My writer-mind couldn’t help thinking how to use these tips in reverse. Inside a novel, conflict built on miscommunication is quite fun.

Here are Marie Forleo’s tips for clear communication and how to use them backwards in fiction:

  1. Fancy words obscure your message. I hadn’t thought about the way verbal playfulness could be misinterpreted and her example makes it deliciously opaque, I mean, clear: Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 11.47.58 AM

Shakespeare gives fancy words to characters who don’t understand them. Now I’d like to add a malaprop-prone character to my work-in-progress.

Taking the opposite approach, Dorothy Dunnett’s character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, uses complicated words and obscure Latin quotes as weapons, tools for seduction, or as a dazzling smoke-screen.

Maybe, the more delightful the language is in a story world, the less useful it is for getting your point across in the real world. And vice versa.

2. Lose the “dumb” disclaimer. Instead say: “What about this?” I’ve seen this speech habit associated with women and girls. Imagine a villain who suggests ideas with disclaimers that turn out to be clues.

P.G. Wodehouse’s character Wooster combines “dumb” disclaimers with fancy words in an endearing way. [If you like Wodehouse, you have to read his lovely interview about the art of fiction.

3. Use “Yes, and” instead of “Yeah, but.” I’m not good at this one, but 🙂 I’ve heard it before. My current heroine could get into a lot of trouble with “Yeah, but” and if I gave her this trait, I might learn it myself. I love the idea of a character trying to get a seat at a table, round or otherwise.

“If you haven’t been invited to give feedback and you really want a seat at the table, “Yes, and” will help you get one.” –Marie Forleo

4. Instead of blasting people with your ideas, get people intrigued first.

Remembering to breathe is key, both in fiction and in real life. This is also the way to pitch a book idea at a writing conference.

The natural tendency is to blast listeners with everything you know and love about your story, to try to anticipate everything that people would want to know, or to list every detail that could entice them into wanting to know about the story. (Did you fall asleep during that sentence?)

The most powerful way to catch someone’s interest is to tell part of a story. And then shut up.

This is called a “hook.” 🙂

5. Follow-up. Don’t apologize and be mousy. Try language like this:  Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 11.55.17 AM

Good advice to follow for query letters.

“Mousy-ness” is the reverse of the character trait in tip #1. It’s another kind of smoke-screen that says: “Don’t look at me too closely.”

What do you think about Marie Forleo’s tips? Do you have favorite fictional characters with confusing speech habits? I’d love to hear about them.


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Wait–My free calendar from the health food store has predictive powers?

Wild boar with nose dusted with snow from January page of my 2016 calendar.
January’s Wild Boar from my ReformhausMarketing GmbH 2016 calendar. Image: Horst Jegen/ImageBROKER/mauritius images

My youngest took a horse for a walk in the forest this week. I went along.

The horse, Rökkvi, is a shaggy, black, Icelandic pony with a mellow disposition. We were walking along one of the forest’s old hunting roads when Rökkvi pricked his ears and turned his head to the left.

When we finally looked, we saw a wild boar hurtling through the forest parallel to us. The boar shot past us, made a 90 degree turn, crossed our road, and disappeared into the forest on our right.

Rökkvi’s expression: “I told you there was something.”

I haven’t turned the calendar page yet to see what’s coming up in February.

 

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What’s in a reversal? Exploring Leigh Bardugo’s RUIN AND RISING.

Gasses bubbling the water at the lakeshore. Geothermal activity at Maria Laach caldera in Germany.
What bubbles to the surface? Geothermal activity at Maria Laach caldera in Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

Just finished reading Leigh Bardugo’s RUIN AND RISING, the 3rd book of her Grisha trilogy. If you haven’t read it, go read. (Note: This is a YA, not a middle grade title.)

SPOILER ALERT.

Last night, I stopped reading at the end of Chapter 8. Earlier in the chapter, things are looking up for Alina. She takes definite steps to be less isolated from her friends. The reader thinks things are looking up. But after this scene of light and laughter, the friends leave, and there’s one little paragraph:

Later, I could never be sure if I’d done it deliberately, or if it was an accident, my bruised heart plucking at that invisible tether. Maybe I was just too tired to resist his pull. I found myself in a blurry room, staring at the Darkling.”

For whatever reason, Alina has decided to reach out to the antagonist, the Darkling, through the tie that binds them to each other.

This moment in the story felt so real because we all know what it’s like to do something stupid when we just should have gone to sleep. After reading this story moment, I couldn’t sleep either because I knew this decision would ruin her. My reader brain was busy trying to rescue her from this choice.

I almost didn’t pick up the book again the next day. But I was on a train to Cologne and it was on my e-reader. So I did. When the scene didn’t turn out the way I expected, I was so relieved.

So, how did Leigh Bardugo do that?

How did she make the reader SURE that something dreadful was going to happen, without a doubt, and then REVERSE, without losing credibility?

This morning, I finished RUIN AND RISING before I finished traveling, so I had time to ponder.

Megan Whalen Turner’s ATTOLIA series and Dorothy Dunnett’s LYMOND CHRONICLES also have this trick of pivoting the whole story world on a character’s decision or a line of dialogue or an unexpected action.

Middle grade authors, Sage Blackwood and Angie Sage, also pull off this trick.

I really, really want the recipe.

Reversal ingredient list:

  • Reader expectations about the main character’s choices. Which ones look good from a reader perspective?
  • Consequences bubble up naturally early in the story. The reader experiences dread at the moment of choice rather than information overload.
  • Tension: The chapter that follows this passage has a feeling of I-should-not-be-here-but-I’m-too-tired that creates forboding.

Mix in reader expectations to form a smooth batter. Let consequences ferment. Set story aside to rise. Fold in a challenging choice and bake in a hot oven until done.

And then there’s Author Brutality, a.k.a. making things worse.

In his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL workshops, superagent Donald Maass asks:

“What’s the worst thing that could happen to your main character?”

“It just happened.”

Collective groans and sounds of grief from writers killing off their main characters.

“Now–what happens next?”

Because whatever happens next HAS to be a reversal. The main character has gone as far as possible in the original direction.

Any thoughts about more essential ingredients? Do you like stories with reversals? If you feel like sharing in the comments, I’d love to know your favorite examples.

 

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Creativity: How our challenging circumstances are the key to success

Lenne River near Werdohl, Germany
Power from obstacles. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

My daughter and I watched THE KING’S SPEECH the other day. I’d seen it before, but the story captured me all over again. In the film, the Duke of York’s stutter seemed to be a physical manifestation of the desire to hide. No idea if that is accurate or not, medically speaking. It struck me as a powerful metaphor.

[Spoiler alert!] Why would swearing be unaffected by a stutter? I’m guessing it’s because when you swear, you aren’t trying to please anyone anymore. Someone or some situation has pushed you past everything that hems you in.

We are wonderfully made and yet disaster lurks in each one of us. THE KING’S SPEECH made me feel yet again that life is about facing up to our own weaknesses and challenges. Each of us have slightly different ones, but the ones that are unique and personal to us are the ones that lock up our greatest potential. We have the potential to become experts in those particular challenges.

Another example of this kind of courage brought tears to my eyes. The strange syndrome of Tourette’s syndrome makes some sufferers spout obscenities against their will, a vocal manifestation of an uncontrollable muscle tic. THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN gave an amazing talk at the Hartford Public Library about his personal experience with Tourette’s.
It seems so mundane to find meaning in our current circumstances, but it makes some sense. Unlike an author, we can’t change our point-of-view character completely. Empathy can only take us so far.

So many of my husband’s relatives are struggling with serious chronic illness right now. When I worked in the health department, I worked conscientiously to help other people improve their health, to “solve” other people’s weaknesses and challenges. Does this work?

The most helpful health department project I evaluated during my time there was a project on breastfeeding. The breastfeeding project was both scientific and personal to me and to the others who worked on it. I applied my personal experience with two children as well as my epidemiology training. The project was effective at increasing rates of breastfeeding without formula supplementation because we applied our own experiences as well as our professional knowledge. Creativity takes all the skill and talent we have.

To really help other people, we need expert knowledge. Writers have to find resonant weaknesses in ourselves to draw a believable villain or a flawed hero in a novel. We need the same kind of imaginative vulnerability to apply knowledge to other challenges in our lives.

 

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