Janet Fitch and Avoiding Clichés “Like the Plague”

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“April showers bring May flowers.” “Busy as a bee.” What other Spring inspired cliches can you think of? Good! Once you think of them, never use them! Or, at least use them sparingly.

I love that old saying by Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Has it become a cliché? Probably. But I love it anyway because as a writer myself I know it’s all too true.

My “I hate writing” moments happen when I’m drudging through a first draft. You can see my posts with tips for writing a first draft here. After I finish my first draft, that’s when I’m on the journey toward my “love having written” stage. That’s when I sit down at the computer no longer wanting to pop my eyes out with spoons or pluck my hairs one by one. Finally, in the second draft stage, I’m able to find the poetry in the prose. When I find the flow, that’s when the fun of writing begins for me. How do I find the flow? It’s a challenge, one that started 15 years ago.

In 1999, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, for the Oprah Book Club. Fitch talked about how a writing instructor told her that a “cliché is anything you’ve ever heard before—so never use a description anyone has heard.” As I remember it (it was 1999), Fitch spoke about a time she challenged herself to describe a tree with her own unique phrases. I was already well into fiction writing at that time, and her words struck me as truth. I learned that writers should reach to find their own descriptions, and they should never be lazy and allow others to do the work for them.

In a 2006 interview for O Magazine, Fitch explained that when she began writing fiction she had to work on word choices and the music of language. That was what I wanted too. I wanted to work on word choices and the music of language. I wanted to avoid clichés “like the plague” and create images “as sweet as pie.”

It’s a lesson I still hold close to my heart. When I’m molding sentences, I stretch, hands out, fingers pointing there, there where that inchoate image waits, sometimes patiently, sometimes not, for me to probe my vocabulary for the exactly right string of words to illuminate what I see the way I see it. If I’m describing a storm, a small town, a person, an emotion, I need to do it my own way. In their 2006 interview, Oprah mentions to Fitch that such a stretch “seems as if it would be quite difficult.” Fitch responds, “It is. But it means that everything you give the reader is absolutely fresh. We read so that we can be moved by a new way of looking at things.”

I learned a lot from Fitch in 1999, again in 2006, and I continue to learn from her whenever I read one of her novels. Reaching for phrases I’ve never heard before becomes harder with everything I write, but that’s the part of writing I thrive on—creating poetry in prose. And when I do finally find the right words, that is when I love having written.

If you’d like to lose yourself in the poetry of Janet Fitch’s prose, check out her novels or the short pieces on her blog. The 2006 interview for O Magazine can be found here.

Writing a First Draft Part 4

One Inch Picture FrameTip 4: Give yourself a small task to complete every day.

In How to Write and Sell Your First Novel, Oscar Collier suggests the quota of three pages a day. I like that quota and have used it myself for years. Three pages usually works out to about 1500 words, which is enough that I’m making progress every day but not so much that I feel overwhelmed because it will be too hard or take hours to finish.

At a certain point every day I realize I’ve exhausted my list of Excuses (I’ve made dinner and dusted and played Words With Friends and pinned on Pinterest and emptied the dishwasher and fed the cats and checked my e-mail and…). At that time I have to accept that there’s no earthly reason I can’t write, so I say to myself, “It’s only three pages.” I sit at my computer, open my file, count three pages from where I left off to see what page number I’ll end up on, and go. I don’t worry about anything at this point, not spelling, not word choice, not organization, not even if it makes sense. I will fix those things later. I write my three pages and call it a day.

On days when things are flowing well, I might write more than three pages. Most days I end up writing four or five pages. Some days I write 10 pages. On really good days I’ve written 20 pages or more, but days like that are rare in the first draft stage. When I’m feeling like I’d rather pop my own eyes out with spoons than keep writing, I remind myself, again, that it’s only three pages. Tonight, for example, I hit my three page quota, felt the mental strain from getting that far, and stopped. Still, I felt good about it. I met my quota. I moved my story forward, and that’s all I need to do right now.

In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott talks about short assignments and writing just as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame. When I heard Wanna Get Lucky? author Deborah Coonts speak at the Las Vegas Writers Group in June 2010, she said she gives herself a quota of 1500 words a day. Remember that quotas are a great tool that many writers use, but they only work if they’re reasonable. Don’t give yourself a high quota, like 15 pages, 5000 words, or a 10-inch picture frame because it’s a lot to write every day and it will be discouraging when you don’t get there. Writing is hard enough without self-sabotage. Give yourself a small goal you can actually reach and get it done every day.

Writing a First Draft Part 1

Bird by BirdEvery writer I’ve ever known, and every writer I’ve ever read about, says the same thing: the art of writing is in the rewriting. Writing the first draft is a chore, but we can’t proceed to our final draft without it.

Three books that have helped me through all stages of writing are Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and How to Write and Sell Your First Novel by Oscar Collier. I’ve read those books so many times that the information contained within has intertwined into my DNA (like hair coiling in Avatar).  Many of the tips I have shared with writers over the years come from these books. If you’re a writer, I recommend you read them.

Tip 1: Make sure you love what you’re writing. If you don’t, you probably won’t write it.

I often encounter people who’ve had this great idea for a book for years but they haven’t gotten around to writing it. I tell them that if the idea isn’t pressing them to the point of distraction, then it might not be right for them. I tell them that if they have a nice life, a nice job, a nice family, and don’t feel a burning desire to write that story then they probably won’t. Thinking you want to be a writer and writing are two different things. Writing is hard enough when you feel compelled by Fate to do it. It’s even harder, if not impossible, when you don’t have that burning desire. When is it time to write? When it’s more painful not to write something than it is to write it. If an idea is gnawing at you and won’t leave you alone to your nice life with your nice family, that’s when the writing process begins.

Writing Down the BonesFor all the projects I’ve completed, many more lay by the wayside. If I wasn’t compelled by what I was writing, then I dropped it. If I can’t convince myself that the project is worth writing, how can I convince a reader that it’s worth reading? When I began working on Her Dear & Loving Husband way back in the old-timey days of 2009, I was so compelled by James and Sarah’s story that I worked on it nearly every day for a bit more than one year—367 days to be exact. I may have taken a Sunday off here and there, but even on those days when I wasn’t at the computer it was always on my mind. In that case, I wrote the first draft in six weeks. It was, come to think of it, the easiest first draft I’ve ever written. Why? Because I had to write that story down. I had to get it out of my head and onto paper. I couldn’t live peacefully with myself if I didn’t.

Do you love what you’re writing? If the answer is yes, then you’re on the right track. If the answer is no, that’s okay. Not every idea is meant to be a long-term project. Keep searching until you find that idea that keeps you up at night, itching to get back to it.

Writing Historical Fiction Part 6

Part 6. Take notes, then more notes, then… 

After I’ve read as much about my subject as my brain can handle, I’ll begin to form ideas about how I can incorporate the history into the story I want to tell. Then I can begin looking for the specific information I need to help me connect the dots. That’s when I begin to take notes.

I still prefer to handwrite my notes into a spiral notebook. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg recommends getting notebooks with cartoon characters or crazy designs on the cover because it prevents you from taking yourself too seriously while you’re working. Writing out notes the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, can seem like a tedious process to some, but, like Goldberg, I believe there’s a hand-to-heart connection in writing things out longhand.  I absorb the information better that way, and then I can do a better job relating the information to others. When I try to take the short cut and print up the articles from the Internet or make photocopies at the library, I don’t read the information as closely as I do when I handwrite my notes. I skim, find only what I think I need, and ignore the rest. When I handwrite my notes I’m forced to slow down, read carefully, and decide what is important enough to write down. Because the process can be slow I have time to think while I’m working. Sometimes being forced to slow down and think can be a good thing, especially when crafting a story.

Some writers prefer to type their notes or write them out on index cards. One writer friend of mine posts his research notecards on a bulletin board by his desk. His board is divided into sections, one section for each chapter in his book, and he pins his notecards into the chapter where he thinks the information will go. Some writers like to highlight the information they need, using a different color for each category of information. That’s fine.

Part of becoming comfortable with the research process is figuring out what works best for you. The notes, in whatever form you write them, do come in handy after the library books have been returned and you need that certain date while you’re working.  And don’t forget to write down the bibliographical information for each source you use. You may want to go back to those sources again.