Last weekend my family came for a visit. I have five nieces and nephews—all under the age of seven—so family visits incite as much joy as they do utter exhaustion and chaos. They also provide me with a lot of subjects for study: family interactions, child development, and the basic tenets of humanity (or how babies, technically, are different from dogs). This weekend, as the happily unmarried and blissfully childless aunt, naturally I spent the whole time observing and internally critiquing my siblings’ parenting skills.
While the intricacies of those critiques can be petty, one thing I noticed was the way in which parents shape the stories of their children’s lives. My twin nieces just reached the one-year mark on wobbly, bowed out legs, and already they have their own stories. MJ is the quiet observer, she likes to sit and watch, take the world in with her big, round eyes; Ceci is a little gymnast, crawling and climbing and terrorizing whatever she can find (including the cat’s litter box—blech!). MJ is calm and careful; she likes music and dancing. Ceci is rough and strong, a tomboy all the way.
I struggled with this deterministic characterization all weekend. It’s so easy, and as a writer it’s rather fun, to categorize and characterize and compare, to imagine what all these little beings will be when they become complex and experienced adults. At the same time, I recognized how tenuous the role of parent can be. Parents are the keepers of their children’s stories until they are old enough to take control themselves, but at the same time there is a danger in being the story keeper, in forcing the character, in placing too many expectations and in so doing inviting the equivalent limitations. When you consistently compliment only a child’s skills in math or running, you are also, in a way, telling them they are not good at other things like music or dance; your ideas and personal preferences get transferred to your child and their story becomes narrowed.
In her wonderful treatise on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott has a chapter on character in which she discusses the importance of knowing your characters:
“…each of your characters has an emotional acre that they tend, or don’t tend, in certain specific ways. One of the things you want to discover as you start out is what each person’s acre looks like. What is the person growing, and what sort of shape is the land in?” (Lamott 45).
She stresses the importance of a fully fleshed out character, even if not all of that information, not all of the things growing in the character’s emotional acre, make it into the book or the story or the poem. By having a complete physical and emotional picture of your character in your mind, you are one step closer to having a more realistic and compelling character on the page.
However, just as I, the completely unqualified crazy aunt, am concerned about the effects of over characterization, so too is Lamott. She ends her chapter on character with a complete and cautionary reversal:
“Just don’t pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don’t. Stay open to them. It’s teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple” (Lamott 53).
Characters, like children, are meant to surprise; they are meant to disappoint, to astonish. Sometimes I look back on the writing I’ve done and wonder: Are all of my characters the same? Where is my diversity in personality? It’s so easy, in attempting to know are characters, in trying so hard to make them come alive and feel real, to become an overbearing parent of a writer. But as writers, we are not creating miniature versions of ourselves, we are raising our own fictitious children, and like parents, we must find the perfect balance between guiding, shaping, directing and stepping back, watching, and listening. We can imagine and cultivate our character’s emotional acres, but at some point we must be willing to let them grow and see what happens.
Whenever I finish a really good book—one of those books that keeps you up at night, begging to be finished, that makes you think about something completely differently, that inspires you to create something that beautiful and thought-provoking, yourself—I immediately wish I could talk to the author. Sometimes I’m dying to ask the writer about their plot choices, but mostly I just want to know how. How’d they do it? How did they come up with the idea? How did they survive the grueling process of writing and editing? I want to know all about their process and experiences and habits, anything to give insight into the amazing feat of writing a book.
If you’ve ever felt the same way, then you’re in luck. We’ve invited some of Unsolicited Press’s fabulous poets and writers to join us for a little round table Question-and-Answer. Some questions are serious, some are silly, and all are interesting. Read on to meet some of our authors and find out about the behind the scenes process of writing.
To read what the authors had to say, click to read the article. This is a longer piece, but I hope it stimulates conversation!!!
When I was little—just at that age when you can read books all on your own, but you still beg for them to be read to you—I had a favorite book. My mom thought this book was weird and creepy and should find a forever home on the quiet barely-ever-read top shelf. I thought this book was great; I loved the mystery, the inexplicable, the way the story made me feel uneasy and uncertain.
The book was Dear Mili, the long lost Grimm story found hidden in a letter Wilhelm Grimm wrote to a young girl in 1816, this edition made all the better by Maurice Sendak’s vivid fairytale illustrations. To escape the destruction of war, a mother sends her young daughter into the woods. The girl meets an old man who promises to let her stay in his cottage if she helps him. She serves him for what appears to be three days, but those three days end up being thirty years. Back home, the war is over and the little girl’s mom is an old woman. The man sends her back into the woods to return home before her mother dies. Another little girl, who looks just like her, guides her home, through the dark and difficult woods.
As a child, this book made me feel something I couldn’t properly explain at the time; it wasn’t like any other story I had read. It had magic like other fairytales—the sudden slip in time, the woodland guardian angel—but this magic was different, it was strange and unfamiliar, it had a hint of darkness to it, as though it could just as easily be sinister instead of helpful. Just as the magic seemed unfamiliar, the rest of the story felt so realistic, almost bleakly so; war driving a mother to send her daughter away, alone, to the forest.
It wasn’t until college, in a class on literary theory, that I found a word for those feelings, an interpretation for why I was so drawn to this story: the uncanny. We read Freud’s essay, The Uncanny, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself intrigued by an interpretation under the heading of psychoanalysis. Freud begins with the word uncanny itself, unheimlich (unhomely) in German, and the way that it is defined by what it is not, not homely, not familiar, and yet it is not a perfect antonym because not all new, unfamiliar things are uncanny. Freud goes on to analyze instances that evoke the uncanny, making a distinction between the uncanny in real life and the uncanny in fiction. Sorry for the drop quote, but here is a taste of some of his ideas:
If psychoanalytic theory is right in asserting that every affect arising from an emotional impulse—of whatever kind—is converted into fear by being repressed, it follows that among those things that are felt to be frightening there must be one group in which it can be shown that the frightening element is something that has been repressed and now returns. This species of the frightening would then constitute the uncanny…if this really is the secret nature of the uncanny, we can understand why German usage allows the familiar (das Heimliche, the ‘homely’) to switch to its opposite, the uncanny (das Unheimliche, the ‘unhomely’), for this uncanny element is actually nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed.
Now, as a writer, I know how difficult it can be to create the feeling of the uncanny in a story, how difficult it is to incite subtle, questionable feelings in your reader. As a writer, how do you build suspense, how do you make the reader feel uneasy and unsure? It’s especially difficult to do so when you already know the ending, already have the mystery unveiled. Somehow, it is our task to recreate the mystery for our readers and force them to do the work of figuring the story out, pinpointing what makes it so uncanny, deciphering the hidden meanings.
For Freud this difficulty lies in the relationship between the real and the fantastical: “…many things that would be uncanny if they occurred in real life are not uncanny in literature… in literature there are many opportunities to achieve the uncanny effects that are absent in real life. Among the many liberties that the creative writer can allow himself is that of choosing whether to present a world that conforms with the reader’s familiar reality or one that in some way deviates from it”.
What better time to consider the interplay between what is real and what is fantasy, than Halloween! For one day, the two are interchangeable in the most uncanny of ways. Traditionally, Halloween glorifies the obvious, the outright scary and gory and gruesome, it sets free all the things lurking in the shadow, but personally I’m a fan of the understated, the subtle things that scare you without explaining exactly how or why, the uncanny. If you need a break from the outright terrifying, check out my list of stories that are ambiguously unsettling, that straddle the lines of what is real and what is make-believe, that delve into the recesses of our collective unconscious and make familiar again, what was hidden for so long.
“Dear Mili” by Wilhelm Grimm, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Dear Mili was my very first unsettling story. Five-year-old me says it should be read by all and right before bed.
“Haunting Olivia” from St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
Karen Russell loves to set her reader’s expectations on end. Her language is as surprising and weird as her stories and Haunting Olivia is no exception. Two young boys discover a pair of magical goggles and set off into the grotto to search for their sister, Olivia.
“Incarnations of Burned Children” by David Foster Wallace
The subject matter of this story is gripping and horrifying, but it is the perspective and point of view—as if a child were watching from above as the events unfold—that makes the story truly unsettling.
“Happy Autumn Fields” by Elizabeth Bowen
In Happy Autumn Fields Bowen capitalizes on the way that doubling or twinning can make us uneasy (something that Freud discusses further in his essay). The lives of two girls, living very different lives in different times are in some way connected in this story, but the nature and reason of that connection remains a mystery.
“Night at the Fiestas” from Night at the Fiestas by Kristin Valdez Quade
This story is wrought with a prickling uncertainty. It seems so normal at first—Frances is riding her father’s bus into Santa Fe to attend the Fiestas—but Quade is the master at building subtle suspense, leaving the reader wondering what will go wrong.
“Two Houses” from Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
Kelly Link’s stories are so weird and strange. She creates unsettling and uncanny feelings with her specificity of detail.
The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan
Travel stories are the perfect medium for the uncanny. They provide so many opportunities for the new and the strange to overlap with the familiar—when we travel we seek out both in equal measure. Throughout this novella, I kept convincing myself that it was strange, that nothing was wrong until that act of convincing became unsettling in itself.
“The River” by Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor is the queen of unsettling. All of her stories beg to be read, but I chose The River because the image of the enticing yet secretly sinister river has stuck with me so long.
* Note: If you liked this post, then check out The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows, edited by Marjorie Sandor; it includes some of the stories listed above plus many, many more.
A lot of hullaballoo is made about the process of writing. What’s the best way to generate ideas? Should you free write or outline? How long should you write each day? Where should you write? What should you wear while you write? Writers are almost as superstitious as baseball players are. Famous writers are constantly being asked about their process, to share the keys to their success and offer any piece of advice, any rule to follow (see this, this, and this). Personally, I see the value in a routine—it keeps you on track, forces you to actually write something, prevents distraction—but I also see the value in breaking a routine—the thrill of inspiration, the little light bulb moment that comes when your world shifts away from normal and jostles you awake.
In my world, order and mess go hand in hand. Which is why I am forever caught up in the ultimate writing routine question: pen vs. keyboard, paper vs. screen, handwritten vs. typed. I have terrible handwriting and it gets worse the faster I think so the aesthetic beauty of a handwritten page, the grace of putting pen to paper, is lost on me and my loopy cursive/print hybrid. I find myself plunged into the computer writing world of online distractions and trains of thought interrupted by the immediate ease of editing as I go. The pro/cons lists in this debate are endless and so are the routines. Some writers write all first drafts by hand and only type things up during the editing process. Others type up first and then print and edit by hand. Computers are distracting; they come with internet and twitter and quizzes about which clone you are on Orphan Black (No? Just me?). Writing by hand is more pure, a flow of words from thoughts to page that breeds creativity and freedom of expression. On the other hand, computers are convenient, they allow you to organize and compile in a way that becomes tedious with papers and scratched out notes.
What I’m saying is this: using computers to write is a much-debated personal preference, the various sides of which I am well aware. This article is not meant to tell you how to write, or that you must use a computer. Only that, currently, we’ve come to a point where all writers must go digital at some point. Slowly, but surely, submissions processes are turning online only. Whether you wait to the last minute to type up a manuscript or use a computer through the entire process, in the end it must be typed. Which, let's be honest, can be scary and frustrating and time consuming.
So to ease the process, I’ve compiled a list of practical computer tips and tricks to help a writer out. I focused on tools in Microsoft Word, since that’s what most people use as a word processing program. Also, as I am a writer and not a computer genius, I’ve chosen to explain why these tools could be helpful to writers and leave it up to the whizzes at Microsoft Word to show you how to use them (links for everyone!).
You may know some of the obvious shortcuts like CTRL+x, CTRL+c, and CTRL+v for cut, copy, and paste. Those can make moving around sentences a lot faster and simpler. There are also a few others that can make life easier for speedy writers. CTRL+b, CTRL+i, and CTR+i allow you to make highlighted text bolded, underlined, or italicized. Another extremely useful shortcut is SHIFT+F5, which returns you to the last edit point in a document. That way, if you are working in a large document with several chapters and close the document for a lunch break, when you re-open the document later, you can hit SHIFT+F5 to return to the specific paragraph you were editing. Also, a good one to remember: CTRL+S to save your document. That’s definitely a good shortcut to turn into an obsessive habit.
See this for a complete list of shortcuts.
Find and Replace
Find and Replace can be helpful to writers in a lot of different ways. You can use the CTRL+F shortcut to search a document for a specific word or phrase. This is especially useful in large documents for finding a specific character description or fact. You can open the advanced Find and Replace dialogue box to not only search for a word or character name, but also replace every use of that word with another. This is great for when you decide Fred is a terrible character name and you want to change all instances of Fred to Roger. You can also use this to replace specific formatting like paragraph breaks or page breaks. If you are particularly concerned with efficiency, you can write character or place names or common phrases in shorthand and then use Find and Replace to change the shorthand to the full-length phrase. You can even use Find to search for bookmarks you’ve placed within a document (see below for more on bookmarks).
See this for more information on Find and Replace.
Custom Dictionary/ Spelling and Grammar Check
Hate those squiggly colorful lines that show up everywhere? Tired of all your character names being marked as misspelled? Then, it's time to customize your dictionary. You can add any word you want to your dictionary, especially character names, place names, and technological jargon.
Another great trick to make you look especially professional is to customize your Spelling and Grammar check in accordance with a specific style guide (AP, Chicago, MLA etc.). You can specify what changes should be auto-corrected as you type, allowing you to determine stylistic choices, such as whether to use curved or straight quotation marks.
See this for custom dictionaries and this for Spelling and Grammar check.
Split a Document
This magical tool allows you to view two copies of one document at the same time. It’s an excellent way to edit a paragraph while keeping a copy of the original one for comparison as you edit. Splitting the document is also a great way to keep things consistent in your writing; you can view a description of a character on page 12 while you write more about the same character on page 103. You can use the View menu to split the document or the shortcut ALT+CTRL+S to split and unsplit. When you split, just click inside one version of the document to make edits to that copy. When you undo the split, however, all changes will be merged so the original sentence or paragraph will not be saved, but the changes you made to each version will be saved.
See this for more information.
In the throes of writing and editing, I often end up with multiple versions of the same document: KickAssStory, KickAssStory2, KickAssStoryFinal, KickAssStory3good. Often, I save an older version in case I change my mind about deleting a whole page of dialogue or switching the point of view for the whole story. With this trick, you can compare these different documents and see exactly what makes them different via track changes. Great for returning to a story you haven’t worked on in a while, it allows you to revisit some of the changes you made, or just figure out which document really is the final one. After you compare the documents, you can also merge them into one document and choose which changes you want to make.
Formatting: Headings, Page Breaks, Tables of Content, Bookmarks
Using real grown-up formatting can make your document infinitely easier to navigate and your future editors will love you forever. No more hitting return over and over again to start a new page or chapter. Add a page break! Set up your title page and Chapter titles as headings. If you like to work with each chapter in a different document, you can make your own custom “style” of how the page is formatted to keep things uniform and make them a lot easier to combine later (style can include heading and texts, but also page numbers and header and footer information). If you do like to keep it all in one document, when you add a new chapter, you can also add a bookmark to that page, which can then be linked to your table of content so that it works like a real big-girl, clickable table of content. You can also view all the bookmarks you have in one document at once, which helps with navigating.
See all the links: this, this, this, this, and this.
Mail merge will soon become your dearest friend. I first learned of the glories of mail merge when I worked for a non-profit and now I will never go back to my pre-mail merge life. You can make customized envelopes! That’s classy as fuck. It’s also extremely useful for sending out query letters and manuscripts to a lot of different places. Plop the names and contact information for all your addressees into an excel spreadsheet and then mail merge away. You can make custom envelopes, labels, letters, and even emails. If you are as addicted to Gmail as I am, you can also get the Yet Another Mail Merge add on for Google docs, which will allow you to send custom emails with your manuscript attached without copying and pasting a million times.
See this for the whole mail merge process and this for how to get Yet Another Mail Merge.
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