Writer Idol: Not for the Thin-Skinned

October 30, 2014 § 23 Comments

A guest post from Melissa Cronin:

bbf_logo_small_categoryAt this year’s Boston Book Festival, I plodded into a standing-room-only venue to attend the session, “Writer Idol.” I stuffed a page with the first two hundred fifty words of my memoir into a box bulging with dozens of other submissions, then sat in an aisle seat, in case I decided the session was not for me after all. I stared ahead, waiting for three agents – Kimiko Nakamura, Sorche Fairbank, and Amaryah Orenstein – to enter the stage, where they would listen to two authors take turns reading anonymous submissions. I recalled the description of the event in the brochure: “This session is not for the thin-skinned.” I can handle this.

A few moments later, the agents settled in their seats, and the show began. One of the authors plucked a submission from the box, and started reading. The agents were still, concentrating with their closed eyes. The secret writer knew that an agent could react at any moment, bringing the reading to a halt. The reader finished almost the entire piece before Ms. Fairbank’s hand waved in the air, indicating where she would stop reading and reject the piece. Soon after, Ms. Nakamura raised her hand. Clichés, and too many words are “symptoms of the rest of the manuscript,” Ms. Fairbank explained. Ms. Nakamura agreed. Buried in the audience, the writer knew that if their full manuscript came across either one of the agent’s desks, there would be a good chance they would reject it. As I imagined how that writer felt, a warm current whirled in my chest.

The second submission was weighed down by “too much exposition,” and encumbered with “meaningless” words, Ms. Fairbank said. “I don’t know what’s happening,” Ms. Orenstein said about the third submission. The fourth one was also interrupted. “The scene seems like it’s about to drag on,” Ms. Fairbank commented. I scribbled notes, visualizing my piece. Do I use clichés? I don’t believe I use wasted words.

 “The Peach,” a reader called out. I sat up straight, gripping my pen, readying myself for the critique of my piece:
I dig my nails into my thigh, scrape the center of the raw, six-inch scar that reminds me of a scythe. Despite my efforts to relieve the itch, it won’t let up. Then, like a crescent moon, the sliver emerges from my skin. A splinter?  No. A sliver of glass the size of a fingernail tip. I touch it, motion to flick it away as if it were a poisonous insect, but stop, and hold it under the lamp for a closer look. A dull yellow glimmers from its core. Its amorphous – ”
At the same time, all three agents hands shot up. I dropped my head into my notepad, heat gushing to my face. I had read the passage again and again, and “amorphous” seemed fitting. But now hearing it, it sounded as if I were trying too hard. So when Ms. Fairbank said my piece is “over-wrought with language,” I nodded. I nodded again when she questioned my use of “poisonous insect.” The other two agents agreed – too much focus on detail for the start of the manuscript. Ms. Fairbank suggested I have a “fresh pair of eyes” read it.
Melissa Cronin

Melissa Cronin

For the rest of the session, even though I burned with disappointment, I focused on the responses of the agents, telling myself that this was my chance to learn what they are looking for in a manuscript. I jotted notes: “Start off simple. Don’t dump information onto the page. Don’t create long sentences at the start of the book. Don’t use description for description’s sake, and watch out for piling descriptions on top of each other.”

The next day, after my husband read my piece out loud to me, I revised it:
I dig my nails into my thigh, scrape the center of the raw, moon shaped scar. The itch won’t let up. My nail catches on something hard and sharp. A splinter?  I tweeze it with my nails. I pull out a sliver of glass, the size of a fingernail tip. Where did the glass come from? The windshield of the Buick? Is that possible? Has it been inside me for two months?
Though I had left the session feeling as if I could use a transfusion of confidence, what if I had not attended, or not submitted my piece? I would not have benefited from the trio of raised hands.
Melissa Cronin holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is currently working as a freelance writer and writing a memoir about the 2003 Santa Monica Farmers’ Market accident. A nurse and Irish fiddler, she lives in South Burlington, Vermont, with her husband, John.

Revision and Instinct

October 24, 2013 § 3 Comments

A guest blog from Melissa Cronin: 

atlasThis past weekend, in between browsing from one book vendor to the next at the Boston Book Festival, gathering swag, and schmoozing with writers of various genres, I attended a couple of workshops. Because I’ve been writing, adding to, deleting from, and restructuring my memoir for the past four years, one in particular resonated with me: “Revision and Instinct,” led by Holly LeCraw, author of the novel The Swimming Pool. Of course, there’s no magic formula for revision, otherwise I would not have attended the workshop, nor would LeCraw have had reason to lead it.

But what is the definition of revision? When LeCraw asked the audience to answer, people called out: “Hell,” “surgery,” “re-imagine,” “re-create.” LeCraw’s addition to the list: “Bravery.” Revision isn’t about the technical stuff: where to place a comma, semicolon, or quotation marks. As LeCraw said, “It’s a lot about psychology.”  She then scribbled a sentence on the white board: You need to get out of your own way. In other words, during the first draft, just dump the words onto the page, don’t think too hard, “be a child,” she said, “lower your standards.” Easier said than done. If only I could stop the judging part of my brain: Why are you using the word walk instead of stroll? Why are you putting a hyphen there?

LeCraw then jotted the word prisoners on the board I squinted at my husband sitting next to me, thinking, what is she talking about? Maybe I’m in the wrong workshop.  I had to be patient. She clarified: “Michelangelo’s Prisoners.” Years ago, when visiting Florence, she noticed unfinished marble blocks of figures trying to emerge from the stone. The metaphor: the first draft is the gathering of the clay to prepare for creation. “The middle is revision,” she said, which come from “instinct.” Ugh. That means trusting yourself, knowing what you’re doing. I sighed, whispered to my husband, “How does she do it?”

“Energy,” LeCraw said. I leaned forward in my chair, attentive. “The energy is not in the marble or in the prisoners trying to get out,” she continued. To explain this, she shared a scene from a short story she submitted to a journal years earlier, where the grandmother throws dishes to the floor.  The journal didn’t accept it, but the editor wrote to her to say that the grandmother scene intrigued him. Others said the same, too. What was it about the scene that captured readers’ attention? Honesty.  It was the first time the Grandmother was being herself.

LeCraw asked us to think about where the energy is in our own work. I closed my eyes, recalled a section of my memoir: Through the crowd of shoppers and maze of colors, I saw the peaches stacked in a pyramid. I touched a perfectly round one, picked it up. Recently tilled earth, summertime, wafted toward me. The downy flesh tickled my palm. I couldn’t wait to take the first bite – the squirt, the juices, the sugar. I heard a pop. The sound of a gunshot. The peach was in my hand then it was not.  Why did my mind focus on this excerpt? Because there is action, like LeCraw’s throwing of the dishes?  But energy doesn’t necessarily mean action. Like LeCraw’s marble, you “need to shave away the stuff that’s weighing you down, the stuff that bores you,” she said. What’s left is energy. I closed my eyes again, imagined shaving layers of marble from the prisoners, as if I were scrubbing dead skin from my own body, working to expose my inner self. Suddenly, I realized, for me at least, the energy is in the senses: tilled earth, downy flesh, the pop.

The challenging part, though, is how to avoid the boring stuff: over-explaining or when not enough is happening. After you cut out the part that has less energy, “think about he smallest thing that can fill the hole,” LeCraw said. For me, it’s the senses. What is it for you? Maybe it’s a precise verb or adjective.

Once you’ve finished revising, you need to do what LeCraw calls “polishing,” when the narrative becomes “rigid, ossified,” and it’s difficult to discard material. But, even then, she said, “You might find yourself in first draft mode,” if you’ve forgotten, say, a scene and have to go back and write it into the rest of the narrative. So, the truth is, writing means multitasking: writing, revising, and polishing at the same time. But what if you’re like me and you’re not good at multitasking? There’s still hope: As LeCraw said, though the start is “fuzzy, what matters is that at the end it’s yours.”

So, I leave you with an exercise LeCraw left us with: take the places in your own writing that are pregnant with energy, put them together, then delete everything else. Next, fill in the holes. Of course, you need to trust your instinct. But, if you keep scraping away at the marble, you’re bound to find the story.

Melissa Cronin received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in Brevity and Hunger Mountain Journal. In addition to working on a memoir, she is a contributing writer for a local newspaper in South Burlington, VT where she lives with her husband, John.

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