Saturday, August 30, 2008


I think I'm going to like the Shakespeare class. It's practically a study of my family roots: Britain, Ireland, Wales and Germany. OK. Heinz 57. But the point is, the history of England has everything to do with Shakespeare's writings and where my family roots are, what made my ancestors become what they became, do what they did.

I apologize. That has nothing much to do with me writing a novel, does it? Well, OK. I went to the first class session. The class meets once a week for 2-1/2 hours. We watched a video about Henry VIII and the Tudors. We went online and looked up a few terms: deus ex machina, peripetia, anagnorisis and hamartia. Hm. Interesting terms. I won't give them away. My mom had a saying, "When you have to do it yourself you remember it longer." So, go look up the terms and come back.

THEN, we looked up Aristotle's The Poetics. The three unities of tragedy, according to Aristotle, teacher of Alexander the Great, were 1.) action: no digression; no subplot; one unified action; 2.) time: 24-hour period; 3.) place: one location. OK. We got that. "Shakespeare broke all the rules," Dr. Erritouni advised us.

He asked us if we'd read any Shakespeare. Well, I am an English major and I hated to admit that I haven't read much of Shakespeare. In high school we studied Julius Caesar. About 15 years ago I watched the production of The Taming of the Shrew at Kent State Salem and reviewed it. That's about it. Though, it's not that I never tried.

In about sixth grade the Weekly Reader (children's newspaper from my era) featured a story about Macbeth. I went directly to the library, do not pass go, do not collect $200, just directly to the library! And I asked Ginny where to find it. "You are too young to read Macbeth." "But my dad said it's OK for me to read it." "Sorry," Ginny said, "but no. You are too young and we can't lend it to you." So I moved on to other things. And Shakespeare wasn't one of them.

So, then, on Friday night, I broke out my Complete Works of William Shakespeare and began to read Richard III. And I actually understood what I was reading. And I actually could envision the scene taking place, the emotions. And I was amazed!

The study of Shakespeare involves study of the history of the times, so I don't know the point of the reading just yet. But you can follow my lead and come Friday--if I'm really motivated, Thursday night--I will share what I learn.

Writing involves reading, studying, learning things we never were aware of before. And taking what we've learned and putting it into practice in our writing. For instance, in the African-American Literature class we are reading The Souls of Black Folk at this time. It was written by W.E.B. Du Bois. Is it just me or could the things I've read so far have been said by women--white, of color, or any other variety of women? Could the same things be said for what is happening to the Middle Class today? Can understanding these things make my skills stronger as I write my thesis: a novel?

Thursday, August 28, 2008


I am writing a novel. Everyone has their own process of information gathering and plotting, I guess. I e-mailed my project director, "I'm losing my focus. I'm afraid I can't write this story." She wrote back, "Just get down the first draft. The fun will start when you begin to revise. It'll be OK." It's very nice to have someone to nudge me: Just get down the first draft...It'll be OK."

So I am writing the first draft. Initially I determined that my novel would be about 90 pages, as was Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter. Now I think it will be longer. And I'm trying to get down a first draft although I know that some, perhaps much, of what I am writing will be edited out...chopped from the final draft. I am pulling from my memories. If you read my blog yesterday, you know I watched that Toni Morrison interview about Beloved and noted all of those writing from what I remember.

I read a lot. Writers are supposed to read a lot. And I observe a lot. Writers are supposed to observe a lot. I think I make people uncomfortable when they realize I am observing them. Maybe they think I'm rude, or something far worse. None of us REALLY knows our neighbors well, do we? But I'm using the bits and pieces I find in readings and observations, to weave the tapestry of my tale. And it is fun, as well as hard work. And if THIS part is fun, I can hardly wait to finish the first draft so I can get to the even more fun part of revision.

I make it sound like I haven't done that part before. Maybe it's something a writer thinks about every time (s)he begins writing a new story.

Have I given enough of a peek into what I'm doing to help other writers on their journey? Morrison said to give a little and let the reader bring her/his own emotions with them. Maybe I've said enough for today. It's time for me to get back to,, writing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On Writing: Toni Morrison

A lot of students expect to show up for class on the first day of each new college class, collect their syllabi and cut out early. That didn't happen in ANY of my classes on Monday. Modeling Algebra...full class time and a headache. Intermediate Spanish...full class time and the surprise that I remembered so much after four months away from it. African-American Literature...Dr. Swartz loves teaching too much to let us go much before the end of class time.

We took care of the formalities and got right into the topic with a dated video featuring an interview with author and educator Toni Morrison. She discussed her novel Beloved, how she got the ideas for it, how she wrote it. And just as I do in a lecture, my hand was busy scribbling notes to myself:

narrow and deep
a little, not a lot
oral history
characters as large as life
culture, where is it?
history, where is it?
slavery: a product sold
musical, written simply
reader invited in with their own emotions
rich, effective
leave space
quilt language so the fire can be seen
write the way one remembers
resurgence of spirit
what is really infinite
intimacy between us and our ancestors
always accessible presence
exorcism: things must be made, fixed, memorialized, released, thought, felt

Those all are Morrison's words and thoughts about writing. I took them, put them down on paper so I can go back, again and again, to test my own writing against them. And I will carry around Beloved until I get it read. And in this class we will be reading another of her books, The Bluest Eye. Just as I latched on to Doris Lessing's work when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in February 2008. Morrison is college educated. Lessing never attended college in her life. Both are writers of high esteem. Both share their knowledge of the skills of writing. Could I find better mentors anywhere?

So this is what "they" meant when they said I should study the works of authors I enjoy reading and learn from them.

(c) 2008 Cathy Brownfield

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Writers are...

This week I’ve been giving thought to Chapter One of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I started out doing the morning pages each day, complete with blurts and affirmations. I’ve gotten way behind on my other writing because I’ve spent so much time with those writings. One person said he didn’t need to waste time on writing prompts, which I don’t regard these writings as writing prompts. But I do have other things to do. Like writing. My blog. My short stories. My novels. And I do need to take time to read. Good/great authors don’t just write. They also read. Everything they can get their hands on, just as Irene McKinney, West Virginia’s Poet Laureate said. And Stephen King has said repeatedly that he carries a book with him everywhere he goes. He doesn’t worry about offending people socially since a writer lives a mostly solitary life anyway.

OK. So some people don’t like Stephen King and think he writes too long. I guess everyone isn’t challenged by long books, thick books. I always have been. I can devour short books in no time when I don’t have anything else to do. Which brings me to another comment I have heard, but I can’t remember who said it. “Every writer needs a housewife.” Who has time for scrubbing woodwork and walls, scouring sinks, tubs and toilets, mopping floors and such when there is so much writing to be done?!

On the other hand, at this stage of my game I’m thinking, “What is REALLY important in life?” I mean, we are born, we live and we die. When we are born, we are so busy learning how to become independent. It generally takes us about 18 years or so. I think I was pretty independent by the time I was 12. We learn what our elders consider “important.” Then we may spend 25 years trying to live by those things only to discover, as Snow Patrol sings, “forget what we’re told, before we get too old.” Life is just what we make it. What WE decide is important, what matters.

I get in trouble occasionally because at church the evangelist tries so hard to force us into obedience. I am unwilling to blindly follow what any human being tells me. Firstly, my mother taught my siblings and me that we are to do our own thinking, make our own decisions. We are to be responsible and dependable. Honorable and true. And I can’t help believing that God expects us to question anything that could lead to our downfall. My interpretation: Don’t blindly follow anyone. Look at Jonestown. Waco. And any other cults where people just blindly accepted what they were told and did what they were told…like feeding poison-laced grape Kool-Aid to their children and dying en masse. Those people didn’t test the humans who were leading them. I am unwilling to do succumb to something like that. And I guess that makes me a rebel. Fine. I am a rebel. And a woman of faith. That is good enough for me.

What does any of this have to do with writing? Writers are readers. Writers are philosophers. Writers are thinkers. Writers are observers. And writers write what they think. There can be some risk involved with that.

Welcome to my world.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Writing prompt?

The discussion at my writing list about the book The Artist's Way took an unexpected turn. Aaron said he read the book a while ago, but didn't need to waste time with writing prompts. As I read his post I began to analyze the purpose of The Artist's Way. Is it really about writing prompts? And, it wasn't long ago that I said I didn't have time I wanted to waste blogging when I could be doing real writing.

So, OK. My take on Chapter One of The Artist's Way. I don't think of it as writing prompts. I'm not "practice" writing. I'm not "warm-up" writing. When I'm writing my morning pages and blurts 'n affirmations, I am getting my issues for the day out of the way. I'm thinking on paper and getting my mind ready to work...clearing out my mind so I'm ready to be productive.

Writing prompts are different. You are given an idea to write about and you write what you think of in regard to the prompt

Now, the last thing I need is writing prompts. I have a gazillion ideas to write about. My biggest problem is time--or lack of it--to write all of those stories! So, what am I getting out of this?

1. Clear away distracting thoughts that slow me down.

2. Eliminating negative self-talk that says I can't do this writing thing successfully, mostly from things DH has said like I'll never make anything as a writer. And what I say to myself, "I've never been good enough, what makes me think I'm worth anything now?"

3. To get writing out of the way that I have to do so I can get to the other things that I want to work on. The more I do, the better I feel because I'm producing more!

Can writing prompts do all of that? I am thinking, "No." I've used writing prompts. When they are finished, they are finished. Meaningless. They do not inspire me to write more. My inspiration comes from positive thinking. But it's only been a couple of days since I started working with this course. Let me see what it's like in a month or 12 weeks.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Writing and The Artist's Way

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron was mentioned at one of my writing lists on Sunday. Ah! I own that one. I just saw it…right…there!

Early last spring—or it may have been mid-winter—someone told my daughter Lilo about it. Thinking it might be a good read for both of us, I bought it. But both of us were busy with school so neither of us had gotten around to it yet. Why didn’t someone mention it three months ago? It’s a 12-week course! I started it this week and classes at Kent State resume on Monday. I am registered for 18 credit hours! Shakespeare, African-American Literature, Intermediate Spanish I, Modeling Algebra and five hours on my senior project/honors thesis (writing a novel in my final two semesters in undergrad studies. What’s one more “class” of independent study?)

Cameron advises that this concept is not just for artists. It’s for writers, lawyers, doctors, anyone else who feels stifled, held back from achieving in the areas of their artistic abilities. But here’s something she said that hit me where I live:

“Intended fiction writers often go into newspapering or advertising.” (27)

Mea culpa. I was mother to two young daughters and spent much of some nice weather sitting outside with pen and notebook scribbling a bodice burner the likes of Rosemary Rogers’ style. It was REALLY moving along. The kids were content playing outside in the sand and riding bikes and playing house, and I was content playing with words. I should not have been surprised that I could write that story. I was born to write fiction!

I shouldn’t have been surprised when the economy crashed and I had to go to work. Actually, I wasn’t surprised. I still remember the day I thought, “Things will never be the same again.” It was about 1980. So, I knew instinctively what was coming. So, I went to college but was forced to drop out before I finished. I ended up working in the newspaper business. And one day as I was laying out newspaper pages at my editor’s work station, I thought, “I am 46 years old. I can’t continue to do this. I have to make a choice: work for newspapers until I retire or write my fiction. I can’t do both.”

I couldn’t bear to give up my fiction writing. My husband couldn’t bear to give up my paycheck. I quit my job. Missed newspaper work. Started my own newspaper—which required more hours than before. And so, I suspended pressing of my paper, not because it failed. It didn’t. People loved it! But I couldn’t work 60-plus hours a week when I had children to raise and they figured majorly into why I had quit my job.

So, though this seems a tangent, actually it is not. I have started writing my “morning pages,” sorting through thoughts and feelings and concerns from all of the years I have been breathing. I have my first day’s “blurts” and “affirmations” completed. I allow myself to write because that was part of my plan when I quit my job, whether my husband can grasp the concept or not. And writing was a part of God’s plan for me or He would never have given me the talents I possess.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Destressing so I can write

Getting started writing something isn’t usually a problem for me. Is my stress because I have to write a novel and I’m terrified I won’t be able to do it? What am I doing?

I have my handy dandy notebook with separate tabs for different purposes:

Work calendar to record daily progress: total word count, total pages.

Possible titles for the finished work that may occur to me as I’m writing.

Chronology: list of chapters and main idea for each.

Characters and Events: list of names and things I don’t want to forget and may make reference to at another place in the book.

Theme, Situation: To help me and progression to remain focused.

Plotting: what is going to happen from beginning, through the middle and to the end of the story.

Characters: Notes about the characters to which I can refer as I’m writing so I don’t waste time going back to look up the details I need.

Outline: a flexible plan for what I want to do so I can stay on track, brainstorm more conflict/tension that builds character strengths and a better organized story.

References: what I’ve found in my research and where I found it.

First draft: I print out daily what I have written. There are things I know I will cut out, but at least I will have a beginning point from which to build.

At the very front of my notebook is the genealogy of the characters I will be writing about. Between all of these things I have gained some insight into what I want to do, where I expect to go with my story. I have broken the novel down into parts because maybe the key, at this point in the game, is the breaking down into doable parts that I will join together through the revision process.

So, the writing block with which I started today has given way to production.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Conflict in writing

“Read with a tension-sensitive eye,” writes Donald Maass in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel. You will find the words and explanation in the accompanying workbook by the same title. Maass says you can’t have too much tension, a.k.a. conflict.

Romance author Shirley Jump advises her online writing group when things get slow, throw another elephant into the room. She refers to conflict.

Think about what captures you when you read. Can you see the tension in the scenes? Detect it in the dialogue? Is it the specific words the author uses? Does the writer say it or show it? How? How tightly woven are the threads of the tapestry to make a neat, orderly story that carries the reader along for the adventure?

Think about a tense moment in your life. Can you put it into words? Do the words you use describe the conflict (i.e. tension) you felt? No? Rewrite it. Let yourself experience the moment. Immerse yourself in the situation. Put yourself smack dab in the middle of the scene. What do you feel? Do you sense danger in the air or something else? What about the body language of the characters? The scents in the air? The environment/surroundings? The emotions? The passions within each character?

At the moment I am struggling with my characters because too much autobiographical stuff is getting into the story. I have created plenty of tension, but do I know my characters as well as I need to know them to write this story? Is it their story or is it my story?

Writers have shared that there is a certain amount of autobiography in everything we write. I will say that means that writers have to write about what they know, so a certain amount of our lives will be in each of our works because we are writing what we know. So, it’s back to the drawing board—er, excuse me, the pen and paper—and to work.

Friday, August 15, 2008

What's in a good novel?

My writing friend, Maureen, looked at the chart I had made. I'd spent a lot of time creating a tree and time line to record my characters, their story lines and their connections to one another. I did it because I was so terrified that I wouldn't remember all the details that I had to weave together to a finished tapestry when I concluded the writing of the novel.

"That's very nice," Maureen said. "Now put it away and just write a good story."

Well. Um. That was quite an anti-climax, and she must have realized that she'd burst my momentary creative bubble. On arriving at home, she had posted an email to me to encourage me to just write a good story.

Last year a writing friend from Texas, Bo Drury, took a challenge at one of our writing lists, Jay's Writer's World. She wrote the first draft of a novel, 50,000 words, during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November 2007. In March she asked if there was anyone willing to read the novel and critique it. I was buried up to my eyeballs in classes at Kent State University but I said, "If you don't mind that I can't get to it until the semester is over, send it on to me. I'll read it."

She sent it to me. I started to read and edit immediately, but I didn't get very far. It wasn't because the story wasn't good. It was because of the demands on me. Now, with the new semester only about 10 days away, I sat down yesterday to finish it.

"Was this the first draft of your novel, Bo?" I asked.

"Yes," she answered.

I love the novel and who can help but love the main characters, Harry and Doris. I won't go into the story because it's a work in progress, and it does need more work, but Bo Drury has a writing voice that I am so impressed with. If she can write this well in a rough first draft, I can hardly wait to see what it's like when she finishes her revisions! And I've encouraged her to do so. What a read! Her descriptions take you right to the place. Her characters are believeable and this reader really cares about them and what happens.

At the same time I've been reading Bo's WIP (work in progress) I've been reading something I got in my gift bag at the Malice Domestic conference that was held in Alexandria, Va., at the end of April, Chili con Corpses by J.B. Stanley. Have you read it? Do you like Mexican cuisine? Do you like an entertaining read? A good story? Stanley has managed to do what Maureen advised me, "Just write a good story."

Chili con Corpses takes place in an Appalachian town in Virginia. (I didn't know Ohio and Virginia both claim the cardinal as their state birds.) The Supper Club, aka The Flab Five, is on duty to solve the mystery of the dead twin. All the while there are romantic moments as well. Librarian James Henry, a divorced man, doesn't see his relationship with Lucy going anywhere. But there's someone else who is interested if he can ever get over Lucy, who happens to be preparing to test for becoming a sheriff's deputy.

James lives with his widowed father. Don't think that men can't play matchmaker. Arriving on the scene is local chef instructor Milla who impacts not just their culinary skills, but becomes involved in their lives, as well.

But who would want to kill a beautiful, young woman with a successful veterinary career? And why? The Flab Five leave no stone unturned in finding the truth. Sgt. McClellan wants everyone from the murder scene to be brought together in one place to figure out exactly what happened to Parker Willis.

If you can feel good after reading a murder mystery, this is one you can enjoy. Stanley even includes some Mexican recipes throughout the novel. So, do I put this book on my bookshelf or do I put it with my cookbooks?

(c) 2008 Cathy Brownfield