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IWSG January 2017


Quote of the Day: There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about. Helen Frankenthaler, American abstract expressionist painter

Those are beautiful words. As students we’re taught the rules of writing, art, living, etc. As creative souls, we search for new ways, varied combinations of color and style, storytelling, and setting, characters who don’t fit the norm. The rules give us guidelines and technique. Our creative spirits take that knowledge and mix them all up.

Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writers Support Group, founded by Alex J. Cavanaugh. Please visit either site for more blogs that are participating, or to sign up. Writers express their insecurities and offer encouragement to one another. Even if you’re not a writer, the posts offer something for anyone trying to live an authentic, creative life.

The group has been asking a question for each month’s post. For January 2017, they ask: What is one writing rule you wish you’d never heard?

I’m going to go off the page here and write about a personal experience with “rules.” I believe we need to learn all the rules of grammar and apply them when necessary. Errors and clunky or unvaried sentences can get in the way of the story. From the wise words of author Will Weaver, he says, “Learn the rules so you know how to break them, and when.” Enough said.

My experience with imposed rules comes from a writing retreat I was on in 2010, through the Highlights Foundation. They have great writing retreats and seminars, plus a gorgeous place to write. Check them out. I was there for a novel writing workshop. We were asked to provide the first chapter of our current work in progress. The participants would read it, then offer feedback. Our instructor was Rich Wallace, YA novelist. He offered great writing tips and feedback on everyone’s novel. One of the other attendees was not so kind. I brought my YA historical novel set in 1941. The protagonist is a 17-year-old farm girl who boards in town in order to attend high school. Her mother has been in a State mental hospital ever since her youngest sister was born. In the opening chapter, I have her in the farm kitchen, baking her mom’s favorite cake in honor of her birthday. She is remembering her mom, interacting with her younger sisters, and her father. At one point she is on the phone, a party line. 

One of the attendees zeroed in on the girl being in the kitchen. She said, “You have her in the kitchen for the entire chapter. That’s a no no in publishing.” She also questioned the amount of snow that would have actually been on the ground on December 7, 1941. I wondered just how accurate those details had to be for historical fiction. Of course, you can’t change history and intercept the Japanese airplanes before they hit Pearl Harbor, but did I really need to know how much snow was on the ground in Minnesota when the point was to describe the setting, which would have been cold, with a little snow, but fairly mild for MN in the winter? 

What really got me, though, was the “rule” that I couldn’t put a farm girl from 1941 in the kitchen. I thought, where else would she be when remembering her mom’s birthday and the cake? 

So, I went home from that workshop and stuck the novel in a drawer.

I went on to write a play, more for adults, set in a coffee shop where a group of women gather to talk about their songs (they’re a singing group) and life. 

Rich suggested that I rewrite the novel using the younger sister, middle school age, as the main character because she liked being in the barn with her dad. The feedback from that workshop actually ended my historical novel writing aspirations. 

How about you? Have you used a setting or character that someone told you was wrong? How did you handle it?

Fall 2010 Novel Writing Workshop, Highlights Foundation, instructor Rich Wallace

Despite the negative feedback on my novel, I really did have a good time at this workshop. I was with a great group of people, all following their dreams to becoming published authors.

One note: I’ll be off the grid today, so I won’t be able to respond to comments or visit you back for a few days. Thanks for stopping by!

Go. Create. Inspire!

Journaling Prompt: What creative projects are you working on in the new year?

  1. “Rules”
    It’s amazing to me … the power of one voice and the impact it can have on us – positive or negative.
    Perhaps, when the time is right … you will attempt writing that historical novel once again … trusting Spirit and the story yet to be written …

  2. That seems like a really odd thing to come down on. That person has no idea how many hours my grandmother spent in the kitchen. Or even my mom, who loves to cook. At least it did help you in the end.

  3. I don’t always follow writing rules, but I find the idea of no rules at all a litte scary. I wonder why that is – and could it be holding me back?

  4. I think you need more opinions. The logistics for the time period say the girl in the kitchen fit, maybe just some tweaking would have fixed it. You put modern into a period piece and you lose something and probably readers of the genre, so don’t get the advice.

    Hope your holidays were great.
    Juneta @ Writer’s Gambit

    • Thank you. I appreciate the affirmations.

    • Joan Hasskamp says:

      Your book sounded perfectly fine to me! Sometimes I don’t think other readers–especially when they’ve only read a short bit of the book–realize or understand the subtext that may lie within. Later on the kitchen may play a pivotal role or be a metaphor for something instrumental in the relationship of the girl and her mother. I say keep the girl in the kitchen and as much snow on the ground as you want!!!! Hope you’ll keep working on it–whether as a book or play!

      • Thanks, Joan. The scene seemed important in showing that the girl was the one in the kitchen, doing all the work, and missing her mom, especially on her birthday. Oh well, she’s out of the kitchen in the next chapter. Maybe she’ll be on stage (in a play version of the story) some day.

  5. I agree with Alex, why not in the kitchen. In 1941 women spent a lot of time in the kitchen – it takes a long time to cook meals. Plus if she was on the phone- glad you said party line- that phone had a cord and didn’t follow her into other rooms- party-lines would let her talk for a few minutes then cut in to give other people time to talk and phones if a family had one they only had one.
    Happy I found you! I am here from IWSG

    • Thanks. I know. It was her harshness, dismissal even, of where she was. If we’d had a conversation about it, that would have made a big difference. Maybe tell me to get her out of the kitchen earlier, or something. Still, the setting is appropriate for the times and the story. The girl isn’t stuck there the entire book, either. The next chapter she’s off to school, even plays a little broom ball out on the icy streets.

  6. I can’t believe what an opinionated, close-minded person you experienced at the workshop. What odd things to criticize? It can be discouraging to have some thoughtless person say something that hurts your feelings and dreams. My grandmother would spend hours in the kitchen, making meals. Especially when you had to make everything from scratch – no convenience meals for her. Don’t give up on your book. Bring it out of the drawer, dust it off and see what you have for the future! Found you through IWSG – glad I did.

    • I know, Diane. Thank you for your encouragement. She’s probably right that it was stereotypical to have the girl in the kitchen. And, it was the way she criticized it that was so hurtful, and stopped me in my tracks. It could have been a good discussion on examining setting, etc.

  7. Mary, I’m so glad I kept this in my inbox to read when I had a chance, which is now, finally. I know you’re in a warm place at the moment but hopefully still reading your comments. That trip will always be special to me. There were a few awkward moments, and though I have some in my memory bank too, I hope they will never rob us of the beautiful adventure we had together. It remains one of my favorite fall trips of all time! That said, we were very vulnerable in that space to be sure. I don’t think we were quite ready for how things unfolded. I also had worked hard on my novel, and it was the end of my project as well, sadly. That’s too bad. But…I actually do love the idea of you doing this as a play. You have a gift with creating the voices for scripts, and I look forward to seeing the finished product someday. A cheerleader in ND, Roxane

    • Hi Roxane, from warm and sunny Mazatlan. I thought of you, too, as I was writing this. We didn’t get the feedback we were expecting. And, it put an end to the project. But, maybe, they do need to take a new form, and get renewed energy from us. Soon. I can picture my story as a play. And, I will have some scenes in the kitchen, among other places. Cheers!

  8. Oh no. No no no. This is one of the reasons I can’t stand writing groups and workshops, especially those that critique first drafts.

    I’ve seen so many novels tossed in the trash because other writers (usually with less experience than the person being critiqued) saw fit to tear them apart when they were still in progress.

    Chapters often take place in a single setting. I’m sorry, but that person was a dumb*ss. I hope you still have that story somewhere. Hugs.

    • Thank you, Holli. I believe she was passing on her knowledge that girls should NOT be in the kitchen, doing traditional girl things. But, you know what, sometimes there are.

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