Jennifer Neri's Blog

Back of every creation, supporting it like an arch, is faith. Enthusiasm is nothing: it comes and goes. But if one believes, then miracles occur. Henry Miller


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Oh my aching stomach!

Being a writer and a reader are two very different things. For some of us those lines cross paths on a daily basis, and I know many readers would never consider writing, just as I’ve met a few writers who don’t read (sorry–but I don’t understand you guys).

As a writer, sometimes it’s difficult to turn off my reader. Very difficult. And sometimes it’s difficult to turn off my writer when reading. Am I confusing you yet? I’m beginning to confuse myself! 

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That’s what this post is all about. Knowing when to turn off either the reader or the writer switch. 

What sparked it was a writer’s meeting I was at yesterday and a comment I’d received in my submission from another writer. He wrote to me that I use heart and stomach problems way too often as a signal that my character is distressed.

I explained that these were generic terms I put in and only go through in the final final stages of a draft to make the writing more original, and if that’s not possible I reduce the amount of stomach’s flopping in a given scene to only the moments of highest tension.

Another writer interjected at that point and said that as a writer when she reads about hearts skipping beats and knots in stomachs it drives her crazy, but as a READER these cues are invisible.

And this is of course true. At least I believe it is.

And yet, at the same time we writers don’t want to be so dull that we can’t think of anything past stomach pains when trouble is coming.

This roused a discussion about the physical symptoms of stress. I for one had done some research on this particular subject in the past, because I’d gotten really bored of myself writing chest tightening so often. And yet, the symptoms for stress are not unique. Our body will respond the same way over and over to various stresses: “Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper.”* 

It’s up to us as writer to try our best to have unique writing, and it’s up to the reader in us to know when it’s okay to leave in a generic invisible cue. Now, if only our writer and reader selves would just listen to each other!

How about you: how do you handle the physical reactions of your characters to tense moments in your writing? Have you ever noticed an onslaught of aching stomachs and pounding hearts in your own writing? And do you agree that sometimes these cues have a place in writing, or do they just plain drive you crazy?

 

*quote taken from: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_signs.htm

 


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A full circle

I’ve been re-writing, re-plotting, and re-drafting, the majority of a novel I wrote eight years ago. Shocking when I think it was that long ago that this project came into my thoughts and I began to write it. It took me one year to write that first draft. It was the first idea that spurred me into being a writer.

My grandmother’s death at the time was the inspiration for the premise. While that hasn’t changed at all, the story line has a lot. As have some characters. And motivations. And arcs. When I returned to this particular work last October, I thought it was an easy fix, and I thought it was basically done. Silly me. But once I’d ripped it apart, I realized I’d gone to far in to turn back or give up on it.

But, that didn’t mean I didn’t want to. Especially as I have another novel I put on hold to whip this one into perfection (ya right! lol), and as I have ideas aplenty, I often wondered why I’m trying to fix something so broken when I can just start fresh. Well, the thing is, I think I just want to prove to myself that I can do my very best with it rather than dump it, and another part of me thinks it’s a great novel, one that many people can relate to. It’s a novel about death, or rather about how the living cope with death. And it’s a novel about stories, and how we each have one, and the choices we make as we travel down the road of that story.

I’m never steady in my belief in my own work. Sometimes I think it’s terrific, other moment I think it really sucks. The last few weeks I’d been thinking, okay, I’d better give up on this novel, the premise stinks, there’s too many characters, and it’s not plausible. Normally, I push through these moments, but this time I came very close to throwing in the towel.

And then three weeks ago my family and I buried my paternal grandmother. I was very close with her, all of my childhood, and even much of my adult life was in a shared residence with her. We even shared the same house during the pregnancy and birth of my first two children. The topic of my novel became too close, not something I was able to revisit during her illness and death.

About two weeks ago I sat down to work, and still, I questioned the story. This was a first–normally distance gave perspective, it allowed me to see flaws and solutions, not just garbage as I was seeing this time.

Yesterday, we buried my maternal grandfather. It was a swift death for him, a quick service. In three weeks, my two last living grandparents died, and I saw vast reactions to death. I saw my own different reactions to their deaths. Those around me responded differently. My parents come from different backgrounds, and I witnessed traditions that were quite different in each of the services and funerals. And it made me reflect on my grandmother’s death all those years ago, and how I felt at the time, and the story my mind created to cope with it. And I thought, “here I am again.”

I’ve come full circle, and yet, I’m a different person I was then. A lot has happened in these eight years, a heck of a lot, some wonderful, some terrible, and I’ve been thinking about this novel on and off during these last forty-eight hours since my grandfather’s death. Maybe this too is a coping mechanism, an avoidance technique. But it doesn’t feel like it. Because in thinking about these deaths, I’m thinking about my emotions, and I’m thinking that I really want to finish this novel after all. Right now there’s a sureness in me I haven’t felt since its creation. A sureness that I know the story I have to tell, and that I’ll be able to do it just right. Maybe I just had to live a little more before I was able to figure it.

As a side, this blog has been a little quieter than usual, a little more down than usual. Here’s hoping for a steady gait over the next while. And I hope all is well with all of you.


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Structure

I’ve been writing on and off for close to eight years.

Does it sound like a long time to you?

It does to me. But, really, it hasn’t been.

In that time I’ve written about ten or so shorts, won a few awards for some, had a few published, wrote for an award-winning magazine for some time. I’ve also drafted two novels, of which I’m editing one right now.

Is it an accomplishment? Depends how you look at it. Some days, I think, wow, I did all that, while having three babies, and never ever having more than a few hours a week to write, and taking a whole year of hiatus more than once. But other days, I think: eight years! Really! That’s it???

As you can most likely tell from my recent post I’ve been in the second place lately more than the first.

One of the difficulties I’m having is getting a grip on structure. I thought I had a tight handle on it: I have my three acts firm in hand. My set-up, my catalyst, my in-limbo time when we wait for the MC to make her decision to act, launching her into act two where we follow her journey, through her false high at midpoint, and into the resolution of act three.

My problem now lies in scene structure, and in making sure each element is in place within each scene.

This morning I’ve drafted a checklist for my self:

  1. Scene setting
  2. Scene goal stated
  3. Scene structure (beginning, middle, end)
  4. Is it clear how I want my character to appear in this scene and does the dialogue, action, monologue reflect this (ie. Weak, strong, frustrated, alert)
  5. Emotional arc
  6. Delivery of info in proper order
  7. Conflict and stakes apparent
  8. Check for order of stimulus : response (something that I get backwards often–weird!!!!)
  9. Resolution and new situation at end of scene (unless is moving into scene sequel)
I’ll print it out once it’s complete and go through each scene making sure that I can tick off each of these items.
How about you: How do you handle structure of your WIP? 
Is there anything you would add to this list?


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Strawberries from the wood

I was making breakfast this morning, peanut butter jam for the big kids, sunflower butter for the little one, topped with a local mixed-berry jam. The jam was terrific, and I did an ingredient check to see which berries were included: blueberry, blackberry, strawberry from the wood.

I suppose the translator was not fluent in english and wasn’t certain how to say sauvages in english. The french ingredient list included fraises sauvages–wild strawberries.

At the same time I was reading over my son’s english sentences he had for homework. They were very simple sentences, and didn’t say very much. I picked up a book and read him a few sentences picked randomly. Each sentence is a story onto itself, I explained. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has an action, movement. Even a description bears hidden momentum. My 8-year-old stared at me with big eyes, and nodded his head.

It got me thinking, does each of my sentences tell a story? Can I randomly read a phrase here and there and create a story from it? And does each sentence on its own lead to endless places and possibilities?

I can only hope that it does (and it gives me something else to look for while editing). It’s the way these sentences are organized and arranged that tell the story I am writing.

The words wild strawberries tell of little delicious red berries, tart, sweet, juicy, and fleeting. A vivid picture. But the words strawberry from the wood conjure a story. And I’m sure it’s a different one for each of us.


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Read, read, read — It’s your job!

I’ve been editing. And I’m at a point where it’s a slow process. I feel like me and my novel are trying to outdo each other, and I’m trying to see what it’s hiding, and it’s waiting for me to do something…

Which leaves me sitting and staring and thinking, but I’m pretty sure I’m outwitting my novel, and I’m going to win and have it all fixed up, I’m certain of it!

In the midst of all this slowness, I’m reading. I read all the time, usually at bed time, but now I’m filling up day time hours reading as well. I’m not procrastinating with my writing, I’m just not rushing and making more of a muck with it.

I haven’t consciously been reading across genres, but now that I realize I have been I’ll try to make more of a point of doing so. Of exploring genres I would not normally gravitate towards. I’ve also been reading more than one novel at a time (which is something I never do, unless I’m reading non-fiction).

In the last short while I’ve read, or begun:

fantasy, Sharon Shin, the first in the Twelve Houses series (I really liked it – anything to do with magic and I’m pretty much hooked). I liked it so much that I’ve begun the second in the series!

chick-lit, Cecelia Ahern, The Time of my LIfe. (pure turn off brain time. I need it on occasion)

The Help. not sure what genre that is – can I just call it fiction? I love it so far, the voice is amazing.

Cathryn Grant’s, Madison novellas. These books have their own genre: suburban noir. Madison is quirky and great and really fun to read!

The First Five Pages: writing book. It’s been a while since I’ve a writing book, and I read pertinent sections. A little refresher.

I think I’ll have to begin exploring horror – something I haven’t done in years. And it’s also been ages since I’ve read pure sci-fi.

When I first starting writing not that many years ago the advice I heard over and over was read the genre you’re writing. Recently, I’ve noticed a shift, now we’re being told to read cross-genre.

Personally, I learn different things from the various genres. YA teaches me a lot about characterization. Thriller teaches me about pace and plotting, and also about withholding and dispensing info. Romance teaches me about relationships and persona authenticity. Historical fiction teaches me about scene-setting and description. Fantasy about detail. And on and on and on. And usually I’ll get a lot more than that out of each individual novel.

How about you: do you read cross genre? And does your reading affect your writing?


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this is fiction!

One of my characters is sick, she has a disease. This requires research on my part, and this leads me to real people. Real people? This is fiction!!!

I land on blogs and read about personal struggles with the disease, or their children’s struggles with it. I read about misdiagnosis, treatments that went wrong. I read about real lives. Real losses. And it sits in my belly, and it festers, and I wonder why in the world am I writing about this? This is too much.I can’t handle this. Plus, what right do I have to try to interpret this kind of situation?

But I keep going, and eventually the ache passes, but the lives of these people who I’ve crossed, even just for a moment on the internet, leave an imprint on me. And I tell myself this is what writing is all about, imagining stories, living in other realities.

How about you, do you ever include the stories of real people in your fiction?


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Back to the beginning

I have spent the last month re-writing my opening. Openings are the most difficult part of the novel or short story for me to write.

When an inspirations hits me, and an idea begins to form and clarify in my head, it’s as though I’m watching something under water. Before clarity, the words come, and as I write the tale begins to rise to the surface.

The result is that the stories I have written always begin with pretty prose – not a question, idea, situation, or setting, but normally just a person, some feelings, and some words. For a reader, this makes for some pretty boring beginnings.

So, I’ve had to create situations, let the reader get to know the MC through actions rather than introspect (at least in my current wip). At times this comes easy, at others I go through situation after situation, sometimes writing the opening over and over until I find the right one. This time I was pretty lucky, but I also got smarter :) I didn’t let myself re-write the opening until I found it. And find it I did!

Now that I have my opening scenes (because the whole first 50 pages changed along with the very first ones), I’ve been reading it, and re-reading it, and slowly adding on, until I come to the point where I’ll merge into the rest of the draft.

I ask myself questions with each and every scene. Some of them are:

What’s the purpose of the scene?

What’s the motivation (driving force) here?

Does my mc attain her want too quickly?

What do I want to reveal? And is it done through action rather than telling?

Are my characters consistent?

How about you: how do you handle your beginnings?

Announcement: In the coming weeks I will be having three guests! Andre K. Baby, Cathryn Grant, and Teresa Frohock. Each will be talking about their book and the publication process!

Happy writing

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