Lessons from Creative Writing Workshop

posted in: Musings, Writing Life | 0

Student TeacherI spend my days teaching 6th graders how to read and write. This semester, I taught my first creative writing elective and so last week, with the end of the semester, I gave my students a survey so that I could get feedback on what they liked and what they didn’t. Their feedback made me think about my writing practice and what I need to help me continue growing as not only a teacher, but as a writer, too.

Here’s what they told me:

1) Fewer lessons

At the beginning of every class, I’d teach a short lesson (no longer than 15 minutes) on some element of the writing process or writer’s craft. One day, I might teach students how to describe their characters more or how to come up with ideas when they were stuck. While I’d invite students to try the strategy in their own writing that day, I didn’t require them to.

Still, overwhelmingly, in their surveys they told me that they wanted fewer lessons and more time to write. Well, duh. <smacks forehead>

The only way we learn to write is by writing. Students, especially emerging writers, do need lessons on writer’s craft, so I won’t put an end to mini-lessons entirely. I am, however, going to reduce the number of lessons I give each week so that students just have more time to write.

2) More teacher feedback

Some people may not be able to imagine a 6th grade classroom that doesn’t have include a daily lesson. “What will the children learn?!?!1” they cry in dismay, tearing their hair out (or something like that.)

I know that the best way for me to improve my own writing is through targeted and personalized feedback. My students agreed. They wanted to hear more from me. So my plan for next semester is to do more writing conferences.

A writing conference is a one-on-one lesson that a teacher has with a student-writer. It usually starts with an open-ended question like “How’s it going?” and finishes with the teacher giving specific feedback on the student’s piece. This kind of feedback works well for two reasons: 1) it’s immediate so students can revise their pieces before turning them in, 2) it cuts down on the amount of time I spend reading and giving written feedback on student work.

3) More opportunities to share

This one came as a surprise. In my class, I allowed students to work with each other every day. I taught different ways of sharing work and giving and receiving peer feedback in pairs, small-groups, and whole-class. I often left 10-15 minutes at the end of class for students to share their work in front of the class, yet few took me up on the opportunity. I’m not sure if it was from shyness or false modesty. I’m not sure if it was fear of being criticized by other classmates.

In any case, many students said they enjoyed hearing their classmates’ writing and wanted more time for sharing and feedback. One thing that I’ll continue thinking about is how to encourage all of the writers in the room to share with each other.

 

All of this feedback got me thinking about my needs as a writer. I need:

1) Time to write. Writers grow by writing. Time to write is precious, and I need to show up for my writing every day.

2) Feedback. I’d like more beta readers who’d be willing to give me feedback on my writing so that I’m not only relying to feedback when the story is finished.

3) Opportunities to share. Blogging, writers’ groups, online writing communities, and more publishing! I need to seek out more opportunities to share my writing, being careful not to fall prey to shyness or fear.

 

I love how my students often make me reflect on my own writing practices!

Turn Off the Fluorescent Lights!

posted in: The Muse, Writing Life | 2

This post touches on writer’s craft and has some spoilers.

 

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Writing should be like Chinese brush painting.

I used to write love scenes like fluorescent lighting: I revealed everything. Like a sportscaster giving the play-by-play, I accounted for every breath, every moan, every facial expression, every body part.

Then, I stopped doing that.

Call me a prude, but knowing exactly what was going on in every love scene really turned me off. In Chinese ink painting, the concept of negative space is just as important to the composition as the dark strokes of ink on the paper. The idea is to capture the essence of the thing in as few brushstrokes as possible.

Now, I try to do the same thing with my words that Chinese painters do with their brushes: I try to build emotion and sensuousness by not only carefully choosing words, but by choosing to not use words. I say things simply. I use fewer adjectives and name fewer body parts. I write the essence of the love scene and not the play-by-play.

For example, one love scene that I wrote in my book, The Muse, was described entirely through the Elizabeth’s drunken flashback. She barely remembers her night of passion, so the love scene is fragmented, told only in blurry snapshots. Here’s an excerpt:

She could only recall the night in flashes—like photographs in a slide show:

Banging her knee against an iron bistro chair as they scurried, mid-kiss, back into the bedroom… The touch of his fingertips as they brushed against the nape of her neck… The feel of his abdomen under her fingers, ridged yet soft when she’d peeled off his shirt.

Also, in the climax of my story, when Elizabeth and Darcy have finally settled their differences, worked out their misunderstandings, confessed their feelings towards each other, and come together for their first real kiss, this is what I write:

William drew her close and kissed her. They came up for air some time later, wild-eyed and flushed.

By not describing the softness or wetness or slowness or deepness of the kiss, I might be disappointing some readers, who have been waiting the entire book for this moment. But, actually, this kiss leaves room for imagination. It’s coy. It continues to entice and titillate, even as it relieves tension.

Am I suggesting you cut out entire love scenes? Am I suggesting that we stop describing sex or kisses or longing looks? No. But your writing doesn’t need to be weighed down with endless description of who’s doing what to whom and where they’re doing it. That actually slows the pace and, to me, is less satisfying. Sometimes, writing less makes the reader use her imagination more.

Fluorescent lights show everything. They’re unsexy. Now, I write like candlelight, painting my love scenes with a gentler, less revealing light.

Where Do I Find Inspiration?

posted in: Writing Life | 0

I find inspiration in:

  • Stories that I already love: Pride and Prejudice, Anne of Green Gables, Sailor Moon. Writing fanfiction has always been easy for me because I get very attached to the characters and worlds from other stories. But often, my own creations start with a pre-existing story, and take a few detours. Characters change, plots change, themes change. The Muse is very closely based on Pride and Prejudicebut another P&P-based fic that I once wrote, called The Chosen People, started off with an image of an Elizabeth Bennet-like heroine and a Fitzwilliam Darcy-like hero, and then went way in another direction.
  • Music: certain artists and songs just conjure up stories. Norah Jones provided a lot of inspiration for The Muse, particularly the more melancholy scenes. But, I’ve also been inspired by Colbie Caillat, Celine Dion, Sara Bareilles, and a few others artists. The funny thing is, sometimes, I may not even love the singer or the song that inspires me. For instance, Celine Dion. I think she’s completely overblown and melodramatic. When she starts belting, I want to cover my ears and cower. Yet, whenever I hear her cover of “Alone,” I automatically envision a story about a woman sitting alone in her apartment painting. Weird, huh?
  • Ballet. That one’s pretty obvious. I know a bit about the dance world and, because it’s such a brutal, perfectionistic, beautiful world, I think it holds a lot of opportunity for stories.
  • Walks through the park. All that fresh air must do something for my imagination.
  • My own wishes, fantasies, and dreams. (Does this count?) Often, I write for wish-fulfillment. For example, I wrote The Chosen People as I was going through a painful breakup. In TCP, my main characters found a way to work through their differences. In real life, my now ex-boyfriend and I didn’t.

However, sometimes my inspiration comes from places I’d least expect. A story that I’m writing now was “inspired” by a short story assignment that I gave my sixth grade students. I always write alongside them, I had no ideas, and I just picked the first thing that came into my head: a story about a boy who’s too scared to ask his crush to the dance. Not the kind of character or story I’d ever think to write! Which just goes to show, sometimes writing is less about “inspiration” and more about “just write something!”

Backstage Episodes from The Muse

posted in: Ballet, The Muse, Writing Life | 0

As I discussed in a previous post, I used to dance ballet in a private, semi-professional ballet studio and in a performing arts high school. Many of the scenes from The Muse come from backstage episodes that happened to me.

In The Muse, my heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, overhears superstar choreographer William Darcy make a mean-spirited comment about her weight. Darcy tells the company artistic director that Elizabeth is “too fat to be a ballerina” because of her larger-than-average chest. This comment incites Elizabeth’s prejudice against Darcy and is, unfortunately, also inspired by events in my real life. I can recall three different instances when (male) dance teachers and choreographers told me to lose weight if I wanted to make it in the ballet world. (For the record, I was a healthy 5’4″, 130 pounds at my “heaviest.”) In part, Elizabeth’s anger is my own, though none of my teachers ever made amends like Darcy eventually does.

Another backstage episode inspired from real-life is the “tutu incident.” William Darcy recounts a situation in which the prima ballerina’s tutu gets stolen hours before a show. Seems pretty bitchy, right? This actually happened in my high school! We were performing a short one-act ballet, Paquita, when, an hour before curtain, the lead dancer’s tutu went missing. Fortunately, the costume director found her an ill-fitting tutu and she was able to go on stage. Weeks later, I was hanging out in the hall with a friend during our lunch break and saw a piece of tulle sticking out from a garbage bin. You guessed it: the missing tutu! In The Muse, they find out who stole the tutu, but in real life, our teachers never did. They did, however, punish every dancer in the program by canceling the evening performance of our Senior Concert. Rumors of the tutu thief’s identity circulated for years after the actual incident: everyone suspected the victim’s romantic rival. Pretty juicy stuff.

Honestly, I wouldn’t believe that these things could happen if I hadn’t experienced them for myself! Art imitating life, indeed!

The Austen Project “F-Word”

posted in: Writing Life | 0

Have you heard about The Austen Project?

It’s an project in which “six bestselling contemporary authors” are paired with each of Jane Austen’s six novels. From the website: “Taking these well-loved stories as their base, each author will write their own unique take on Jane Austen’s novels.”

Um…so basically these are fanfic, yeah? Sorry, are we not supposed to call them that? Because “bestselling contemporary authors” are writing them and Harper Collins is publishing them?

Wait…isn’t this just fanfic? (Picture taken from The Guardian’s website.)

The Austen Project is nothing new or original. Re-telling and modernizing Jane Austen’s stories has been done. It’s being done. Hello, Clueless. Hello, Bridget Jones’ Diary. Hello, Hyacinth Gardens, Derbyshire Writers’ Guild, and A Happy Assembly. Hello, Meryton Press. Of course, I’ve read some of the Austen Project novels, will probably read all of them, and am stoked for Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld. I welcome any and all Austen adaptations.

But my point is that fanfic is pooh-poohed by the Publishing Establishment, except when they’re trying to capitalize on it. Let’s just call The Austen Project what it is: Jane Austen Fan Fiction!

The Muse is Being Published!

posted in: The Muse, Writing Life | 2

It became real a few weeks ago that, ohmigod, this was actually happening: The Muse was being published!

This novel has been in the works for over eleven years. I started writing it in 2003, before ebooks had really taken off, never intending to actually have it published. I was a die-hand Pride and Prejudice fan, living alone and lonely in Japan. I had no access to English television, and scarce access to English movies. I subsisted on DVDs and, in particular, the six-hour BBC Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth as Darcy. At the same time, I also worked a mind-crushingly boring translation job with the Japanese government. A busy day held about an hour’s worth of work for me. I surfed the internet a lot, reading pages of Jane Austen fanfic at sites like the now-defunct Hyacinth Gardens (RIP).

I decided to write The Muse because, frankly, I was bored. That spring, The Phantom of the Opera movie with Gerard Butler as the Phantom had come out in Japan. Something about the parasitic dynamic between the Phantom and his muse, Christine Daae, piqued my imagination. I envisioned a story that started off Phantom and ended Darcy. The Muse was born.

With the encouragement of my beta, Debbie, I began posting a chapter every Tuesday to Hyacinth Gardens. I had no expectations for my story, but it became incredibly popular. Regular readers on the site dubbed my posting days as “Tuesday Muse-Day.” I finished posting the story and it lived on Hyacinth Garden and then on A Happy Alternative when the Garden shut down. There it would have remained had it not been for my angel/beta Debbie who nudged me every so often to suggest I think about publishing it. In April 2013, her suggestions finally sunk in and I decided to go for it.

Being a perfectionist, it took me a year-and-a-half to revise and edit. I took a while figuring out my next steps, working up my courage to let The Muse out into the wider world. And now…here I am! The Muse is set for a release around the holidays, nearly eleven years after I wrote it!