Friday, December 9, 2016

Vanessa Hua's Ten Writing Pointers

In the 54th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Vanessa Hua, author of Deceit and Other Possibilities (Willow Publishing), offers some authorial tips.

1. Hours of power. Figure out when you are at your most inspired and productive—early or late morning? After 10 pm?—and spend that time working on the projects that matter to you most. When I’m feeling less than inspired—say, late on a Friday afternoon—I deal with administrative tasks, such as sending and following up on pitches and submissions, or taking care of paperwork.

2. Reverse engineer. Read stories and study their dialogue, their structure, and everything you can mine that resonates with your work. How did the author manage two timelines, or portray a character only dimly aware of the consequences of her actions? Type out the sentences you love and ad lib style, play around with the details until it becomes your own.

3. Writing about what you don’t know. To describe a time, place, or event that you didn’t witness, search through Flickr, YouTube, Google Street View for photos and videos of other worlds. Soundcities is a database of street sounds. Read fiction and non-fiction from that country and time period, as well as travel guides. If you discover gaps in the official record, rejoice! Your imagination can fill in the rest.

4. Writing outside your experience. Start humbly, not with assumption and arrogance. Ask questions and do research to avoid trite, stereotypical descriptions. Run a draft past readers from that background to get their opinion. Ask yourself, is your character fully-realized, or is he a symbol, a mechanism?

Hagiography? Not on your life!
5. Beware of hagiography. When writing about your family, don’t turn them into saints. As hard-working as your grandfather might have been, as self-sacrificing as your mother is, portray them (or the characters based upon them) in all their flawed complexity.

6. Step back. You’ve just received comments from your writing group or workshop. Put your work aside for a day or more, however long it takes for your emotions to settle so you can see what advice you want to keep, and what you’ll disregard.

7. Exercise.
It’s been said that “sitting is the new smoking”—our sedentary lifestyle is killing us (in addition to all the usual agonies of attempting to write). I try to go for a swim, walk, or a run each day. Feeling off kilter physically can diminish your motivation. That time away from my computer, with my body in motion, is important to my creative process. Often, a narrative dilemma resolves itself when I’m not actively thinking about it, that ah-ha moment when I'm gliding underwater.

8. Double up. If I’m commuting or going for a run, I use a pdf-to-voice app to immerse myself in my work-in-progress and to listen for clunky or confusing sentences. Do whatever you can to make the most of the time you have.

9. Foster literary community. Attend or organize readings, subscribe to literary magazines, and form writing groups. Share opportunities with colleagues and friends, and celebrate and spread their victories—even if they won what you wanted! It will help you cast your net farther in search of opportunities, and they will share with you in return.

10. No one will care as much as you do. Not your partner, not your mother, not your professor, not your editor, not your agent, not your dog. Sounds depressing, but for me, it’s empowering. Your work ultimately rests upon you, and you must do whatever it takes to put forth your best.