Edith Wharton on Writing a War Story…or a Love Story…or a Comedic Story…or a Story Story

In September 1919, Woman’s Home Companion published a lovely little nugget of story by Edith Wharton. “Writing a War Story” is the tale of Ivy Spang, a poetess-turned-short-story-writer. Working as a nurse in France during WWI, Miss Spang is commissioned by an editor at the magazine “The Man-at-Arms.” He tells her that he wishes her to write, “A good, rousing story, Miss Spang; a dash of sentiment of course, but nothing to depress or discourage. I’m sure you take my meaning? A tragedy with a happy ending–that’s about the idea.”

In order to write her masterpiece, Miss Spang heads off to Brittany and moves in with an old governess of hers. And, like every writer before her and after her, Miss Spang hits a snag:

Edith Wharton Quote War Story 1

And, if only Miss Spang’s snags stopped at the beginning.

But no, Miss Spang suffers through questions about plot — “People don’t bother with plots nowadays” she explains to her governess.

Questions about deadlines:

 

Edith Wharton Quote War Story 2

Questions about where to find ideas; the difference between subject and treatment; chasing Inspiration; collaborators; what to do once the thing is published. What do you do if no one reads your story? Whose opinions should you listen to? What does it mean to be a woman writer in a world dominated by men?

If you have a hot second, it’d be well worth your time to read this short story — written by the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (1921 — for The Age of Innocence). All of the questions this short narrative poses show up a lot in Wharton’s work, which I’ll be talking about a lot in the next few weeks.

You can find a copy here,which includes a brief introduction to Wharton’s own participation in WWI relief efforts.

So, really, this blog post isn’t much more than a reading recommendation — but it’s an extremely enthusiastic reading recommendation. Let me know what you think when you’re done!

How Do You Bounce Back From Time Away?

Last Tuesday I outlined my plan to exercise my writing muscles back into shape. Now, I haven’t written much in a few months so I’m feeling like I’m doing some heavy lifting without warming up. And apparently I’m not the only one feeling like this at the moment.

One of my good friends, a playwright, just asked Facebook (the All Knowing) about how to get back into the writing saddle.

There was some straight up, common sense advice:

Just do it and see what sticks.
Don’t put any pressure on it, sit there until something comes.
Write fast.
Blow something up.
Copy someone else’s first line and then finish the story yourself.

I shared Chuck Wendig’s “A Smattering Of Stupid Writer Tricks” with her.

But I want to know what you do. Have you ever taken a long break and then tried to get back into the swing of things? How’d you do it?

Deadlines and Word Counts and Themes: Oh My!

Since November a huge amount of my creative energy has gone into my theatre instead of my writing. Which makes me neither happy nor sad, it’s just how it worked out — the focus went to one area and I produced good work in one medium instead of another.

At the moment I’m trying to ‘restore balance to the force’ (Happy Belated Star Wars Day by the way!) by picking up the pen and writing. Happiness!

Only it feels like this:

It’s not like I’ve forgotten how to write. I can still string words together good. Sometimes I even remember good words well. And I have the added bonus of knowing what I want to write and how I want to write it. But I feel super out-of-shape. Ya know? Like a marathon runner —

Okay. I know nothing about how a marathon runner feels. I hate running.

But I was a swimmer. I know how to swim. I haven’t forgotten the strokes. I know all the methods for moving through water. At the moment, however, I would get my ass handed to me if I tried to race anyone and/or participated in any kind of lap swim longer than fifteen minutes.

So it is with writing at present.

The remedy for lax writing muscles, I’ve decided, is the same remedy for the above sports analogy (the swimmy analogy, not the runny analogy): practice. Specialized practice.

To get back into the swing of things, I’m turning to Duotrope’s calendar of deadlines for magazines with themed issues. My thought process in this comes from my writing teacher David Keplinger — whose workshops always had a ‘box’ put around them. The idea was — whether the box consisted of a theme, particular subject matter, or a specific exercise — that if you put a box around the writing, you stop thinking about all the things that slow you down.

If you’re working within a box, you can’t waste time thinking about Am I good enough? Am I saying what I want to say? How long should this be? Those questions just kinda fall away and you work on staying within the parameters.

Generally, I’m pretty good about working within a box but the big-ass WIP I’m in the middle of is too big of a box to jump back into. I have a little too much playtime in there and I’d like to get back into the structural elements and I think Duotrope’s calendar is perfect for that because:

1. Deadlines. I have to finish in a certain period of time in order to submit my piece. I chose things with pretty up-and-coming deadlines so I don’t have time to think. Write fast. Write hard.

2. Word counts. The magazines have limits set for the words. I don’t have to debate within myself about how long or short I want it to be — there’s a definitive stopping place.

3. Themes. These make it simple for me to come up with a storyline. I can’t hem and haw for endless amounts of time about What Idea Shall I Write? With themes dictated, I’m forced to be creative in the idea department.

I feel like these are good little workouts to get back into shape. Once I’ve pounded out a couple, I’ll feel more comfortable jumping back into the big ol’ book that’s waiting for new words.

Historical Novels Before the Internet Existed. How?

This last hour or so I’ve been working on my WIP, which is a historical novel. It’s a little slow going, but I’ve written every day since the New Year, which is my goal.

However, my internet went out about forty-five minutes ago. It has only just recently come back on. During this internet blackout, I hit a snag on my WIP. I needed to know someone’s name. It wasn’t in my notes because I didn’t think this person was very important (and story-wise, he isn’t), so I didn’t note his name.

But here’s the interesting thing about novels…even a lot of side characters/bit parts have names. I just needed to know this guy’s name because using his title would be obnoxious. This small dilemma led to a small twinge of panic.  

My initial reaction was: Go to the Internetz! The Internetz! knowz all! You can Google that shit in two seconds, fill in that blank, and call it good. About the time that I was clicking over to Google, Pandora stopped playing my magical writing music.

Uh-oh. The Internetz! had heard my need and said, “Fuck you, Jenny.”

Now I had an issue.

Do I need to whip out all of my research books (and there are definitely more than one of those!) and try to find this dude’s name?!

I’m not sure which book he’ll be in. WTF?

How the hell did James Michener write all of those freakin’ historical tomes without the internet or the awesome power of Google? His notes must be astronomically good and take up about three rooms worth of filing cabinet space. He must have somehow crossed referenced and indexed that shit. How could he possibly have found time to actually write the damn books? The thousand pagers he cranked out — how do theyz existz?

I’d like to say that I’m an organized person, but I now realize that would be a lie. An outright, flagrant lie. So, now that the Internetz! is back…I’m going to take this opportunity to Google the crap out of a couple things before I lose it again.
 

What Was Blocking Me: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Hello Tuesday. Time to be held accountable!

Last week and the week before I lamented my lack of progress. This week I’ve figured out what the problem was, and I think I’m kind-of recovering.

It took agent Rachelle Gardner’s post on money and writing to talk me down from the thought process that was freezing me. That process? Namely: worrying about money and pinning too much hope for the future on publishing the writing.

Since Gardner posted about this, I’m assuming it’s a subject that’s come up more than once. Meaning I’m not alone in the dreaming department.

Like so many others right now, my family is not rich – in fact, we’re that bit of the middle class that is just barely scraping by. Both my husband and I have college degrees (he has two). My husband worked in real estate and loans right as that whole mess exploded. We lost our house and had to move back in with parents. Now we rent from those same parents, but at least we have a place that’s pretty stable.

I worked (sometimes two jobs) while my husband got his Masters and his teaching certificate – because a career change seemed in order after all that other stuff. Now he’s teaching at one of the best schools in the state and we’re more secure. Secure enough that I stay home with the kids, partly to not pay for the ungodly costs of daycare, partly because I really want to be there for my kids, and partly because I want to focus on my writing. But there are student loans coming due and we’re already in a place where we can afford the monthly cost of living – but heaven help us if anyone gets sick, or a car breaks down.

Our situation isn’t unique. As a matter of fact, I believe our situation pretty typical – and certainly better than a ton of other families.

And in this economic climate it’s hard not to put more on the writing dream than the dream is capable of sustaining.

Writers have heard the stories: Stephen King typing away in a corner, J.K. Rowling walking her sleeping baby to the corner coffee house while she was on assistance. Stephenie Meyer’s endless home runs on the way to publication: a dream, writing the book, landing the perfect agent for her project, and the rest is history. So is it such a leap that, when we’re debating whether we pay for food or utilities this week, we dream about hitting that payday for something we love doing?

It’s difficult to remember that these writers are exceptions to the rule. Sure, they controlled the things they could control: the writing. But that doesn’t make their fantastic real-life stories any less fantastic.

Generally, I manage to keep that kind of money-worry stuff on the backburner, but somehow it took over this month.

My thought process was “Just finish this book. Send it out. Sooner you send it out, the sooner you’ll get paid.” And I thought I was being modest: “Just enough to get a good savings account going” or “Just enough to pay off one or two of the student loans” or “Just enough to cover the kids’ extracurriculars/preschool.”

Finish it, finish it, finish it. Send it, send it, send it.

Of course, what I did was put too much pressure on the piece of life that’s supposed to be special. And I stopped writing entirely by the time I hit this week.

Then there was a vicious cycle: With no outlet (writing) to deal with the stressors that I was trying to eliminate/reduce via writing, I panicked about writing and put even more pressure on it. Which meant I couldn’t write anything. Which made me panic even more: “I’ve got to! I’ve got to!” Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Normally, I manage to hold it pretty together. Not so this past week. By the time Mother’s Day rolled around I was a wreck.

Sometimes the world hands us what we need, and Rachelle Gardner’s post was a call back to reality. It talked me down. Gotta be talked down sometimes. And, judging from the amount of comments, I’m not alone. That kinda helps. I’m working on pulling it back together.

I just really needed to hear that what I was doing was okay. And if you need to hear that too:

What you’re doing is okay. No, what you’re doing is great – keep doing it.  

The Pen Name Game

Agatha Christie is a household name. It’s understood that she wrote ground-breaking mysteries.

Mysteries are not the only stories she wrote. Under the nom de plume of Mary Westmacott, she also wrote romances. Six to be exact: Absent in the Spring, A Daughter’s Daughter, The Burden, Giant’s Bread, Unfinished Portraitn, and The Rose and the Yew Tree. These are difficult books to get a hold of, but through the auspices of Google books (all controversies aside, it’s pretty handy to have around) I managed to get a preview of one of them: Absent in the Spring.

While looking at the book, it struck me that Christie shifted her writing style, along with the genre, but only slightly. These books were not as popular as her mysteries, and it would be easy to point to the genre shift as the dominant reason that the books didn’t do as well. But part of the questionable popularity may be because of Christie’s use of a pen name.

Popular recommendations (like these from Kristin Nelson, Nathan Bransford, and Miss Snark) say that a writer should use a pen name in the following cases:

1.) Sales of current books aren’t going as expected and your name would influence future sales negatively.
2.) You have an ugly name. (Okay, I made that one up.)
3.) Multiple authors working together.
4.) You’re trying to get a job.
5.) You are writing in a genre that is different from your ‘regular’ genre.

All those reasons seem to me to be legitimate, and I don’t question that these six books were definitely a shift for Christie. And reason number five seems to be the reason that Christie used a pen name – and I’m gonna run with that assumption. Which makes me wonder if using a pen name was necessary.

After all, Christie was a bestselling author, I don’t think that shifting genres would have cost her too much. It probably would’ve assured selling more copies. The jump between the romance genre and the mystery genre is not a huge leap, as evidenced by hundreds of books on the shelves today. Janet Evanovich, Catherine Coulter, J.D. Robb, Tami Hoag, and Charlaine Harris are just a tiny sampling of writers who blend and split those two particular genres. Catherine Coulter doesn’t use a pen name when she switches it up. But J.D. Robb is known in the romance world as Nora Roberts. And J.D. Robb’s sales jumped when Roberts was ‘outted.’

The trick to keeping all the work under one name is to establish trust with that name. No one’s gonna laugh at James Patterson for writing a romantic novel because they know his brand. His fans trust that he’ll tell a good story. Same with John Grisham switching out of the lawyer world to the sports world.

Agatha Christie is probably the most trusted author of the century – especially if we’re going by sales. I think that readers would’ve gone with her if she wanted to tell a different kind of story.

So, have you guys played with pen names? What was your reasoning?

*** In response to a couple questions by my buddy Deb, I have found out the following information:
According to Hercule Poirot’s website (it’s a good one, you should check it out if you’re a Christie fan!) Mary Westmacott was revealed to be Agatha Christie in 1949. That’s quite a few years after her first published Christie novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles(1920). And I have no idea what sales-impact that had on either the Christie books or the Westmacott books.

Also, according to the same website: “The Westmacott novels were simply written for “fun,” to put it loosely. Christie had said in her autobiography that she wanted “to do something that is not my proper job,” i.e., writing detective novels. She said she wrote the first, Giant’s Bread, with a “rather guilty feeling” and enjoyed the project she had undertaken.

Other spots to check out regarding Christie and her nom de plume: 

Rosalind Carr, Agatha Christie’s daughter talks about her mother’s use of a pen name.

A bibliography of Agatha Christie Writing As Mary Westmacott with descriptions of the six Westmacott novels.

 

We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Programming For a Flip-Out and a Resolution

Tabling a work-in-progress is never an easy thing to decide. Most writers’ advice I’ve heard advises that you should push through a tough hump, that you should keep going until the end, because only when you reach the end do you actually know what you have.

Well, I think there are exceptions to this ‘rule’. Stephen King talks about a couple different times when he about threw in the towel on a piece, most notably his wife pulling Carrie from the trash can and telling him he had something. So he toughed through it, finished, and voila! we now have one of our bestsellingest authors ever! But King also talks about struggling with The Stand. There’s one line in On Writing where he says that if he’d had something like 100 single-spaced lines instead of over 800, he would’ve quit.

I’ve been reciting these situations to myself as I, ahem, “shovel shit from a sitting position.” Push through, get to the end, find out what you have. And you know what? I already know what I have. It’s not a novel.

It’s a Super-Blown-Up short story.

There’s nothing to push through to. By adding words, I’m diminshing the story. I’m sooo bored with what I add. I called it ‘overwriting’ so that I would have more to cut. Well, I have a ton to cut, because it should be around 8,000 words, not 60,000.

Yesterday I turned to my husband and asked him what he really, really thought of the novel. I’d told him I was bored, that I was struggling with the characters and adding more complications (because it all felt incredibly forced–I can’t even begin to describe the sensation). One of his critiques has always been that the story is lacking magic (it was supposed to have a magical realism element to it). Then he clarified: he meant that both implicitly and explicitly.

Ouch. That one stung, I won’t lie. He went on to clarify further about how I could and should be using the magical elements that I’ve introduced that would fix all the problems, in his mind. But you already know when you’re not doing something correctly–and the reason I wasn’t using the magic ‘correctly’ is because it’s not supposed to be sustained at the level that it needs to be for a whole novel.

And you know what? All of that would mean very little, I would still push through, if it weren’t for something else that I’ve internalized just recently. As I was prepping for the mentors for the next couple months, a recurring theme popped in: write for yourself.

I’ve heard that before, and I’m sure you have too. But it’s soooooo important, I can’t even begin to tell you. With the publishing world in an uproar, spinning all topsy turvy, publication is no guarantee. You cannot please everyone, and you’ll never know whether you’ll please anyone–except yourself. This is a job where you’ll be alone with paper and pen and computer screen for long periods of time…why on earth would you allow yourself to work ad nauseum and be bored? If you’re bored, your reader will be too.