Monday, December 17, 2012

being brave on the page with sarah cypher

I've met [in person and cyberly] some really great writers through my involvement in Laura Stanfill's book Brave on the Page. One of them is writer / editor Sarah Cypher, of the Threepenny Editor.

After Laura introduced us via e-mail we started a bit of an e-conversation that grew and spilled out over a few months. We're very different writers. She excels at speculative fiction; I like to stick close to my own life for inspiration. She puts lots of planning into a project before she starts writing; I... don't. Sarah is full of great writing wisdom, as her interview in Brave on the Page can attest, and our e-mail thread has started to feel like a companion piece to that book. Here's some of what Sarah has to say.

The big picture vs. language in writing interests me, and I don't really have a rule for it. I'm reading Blood Meridian right now, and Cormac McCarthy is so much about the language - the novels would be hollow if the narrator did anything less than put the weight of the universe on our shoulders. Yet on the other hand, I see manuscripts that give so much loving attention to the language, but it doesn't deepen the story. There's some X factor that makes language and story click together in one novel, and in another, not.


What I try to do in fiction is set up an idea, a what-if that is compelling enough to engage the reader and get him/her listening hard between the lines. If a reader isn't willing to listen for what isn't said, then it's hard for a story with any kind of subtlety at all to work.

Process is a very individual thing. Mine tends to be pretty fluid and unplanned, with the best of my writing often coming from something quirky that pops off the top of my head. I was interested in hearing more of Sarah's process, especially since she is not only a fiction writer but an accomplished editor of others' work.

My process probably errs too much on the side of planning, but it's been helpful nonetheless. Speculative fiction, as a really broad genre, gives me a chance to pick and choose disparate elements from the world, ones that resonate for whatever reason in my imagination. Then I spend a long time guessing at why, and trying on a bunch of conflicts that might tease out that same resonance in a good plot. 

For instance, I've been looking at cyberwar, natural disasters, and gender identity for a next novel - huge topics that suggest a dozen different kinds of conflicts. There's a mysterious, crooked note that runs through them in my mind, and I've done a lot of reading and research to figure it out and capture what's human and emotional in it. It's the listening phase at the beginning of a new project, and it usually ends up being the emotional chord that I try to hit in the story's big, turning-point scenes. 

Then I've got a whole plotting system that works 50 percent of the time, and it helps me cobble together an outline that I sometimes follow, sometimes tear up.

Sarah's having a plotting system really intrigued me. Do most writers have systems they follow? Probably many do. My system is to write down some quirky thought that came into my head and amused or intrigued me and then just start writing and see where it goes. Lots of tearing up happens in that system, too, but it happens along the way of the story. Which system takes longer? Which system makes for a better finished product? I think it depends on the brain. I have a hard time wrapping my brain around story if I'm not wrapped up inside the story and inside the voice of the narrator. When I do try to plan beforehand, I feel like I'm running underwater. I don't really get anywhere until I give that up and start writing.

I'm a visual thinker, so I like to see my arc, my scenes, my subplots, and my theme. I also run my ideas through Lajos Egri's premise / protagonist / antagonist system [The Art of Dramatic Writing], and the young adult tool for identifying your hero's controlling belief. Sometimes I think about Joseph Campbell [The Hero's Journey]. They're all ways of panning for gold. Sometimes, though, I'm like you: I just write to the best of my ability and see where the words find depth, and follow that. It's definitely the scariest exercise.

You wouldn't think of writing as a scary thing. When editor Laura Stanfill first floated Brave on the Page as an idea for the title of her book on writing, my thought was, yes, writing is a place where you can be brave. You might have been that kid who ate lunch in the library and ran away from the volleyball [perhaps I've admitted too much, here], but alone and safe with a page and a pen, you can be brave. The more I thought about it, though, I realized you can take that phrase, brave on the page, a number of ways. Sometimes the being brave isn't what you can do but what you must make a concerted effort to do. In our e-conversation, Sarah and I found ourselves talking a lot about this.

To me, being brave is just a test of faith: that your idea matters, that your story matters, that your intuition is alive. I do a lot of planning at the outset, but it is helpful only so far - usually as a trail of breadcrumbs to follow if I lose my way. It's also a way of helping knit research together. I almost always change the plan as I'm writing, but the goal is to do it from a position of creative confidence, an informed discovery that I was wrong about something, and that my character is developing well enough to point it out to me. Otherwise, I just feel like I'm blowing with the wind, and that eats away at my courage.

Bravery in writing comes in looking at that blank page and finding something to say. Bravery in writing comes in creating something and hoping to god it's good. It comes in opening up one's secrets, one's sore spots. It comes in spending hours and weeks and months and sometimes years on a project and knowing that what lies ahead is a string of rejection letters. It comes in choosing a plan and sticking with it even though it's so hard to know what will yield the best results:

Plotting everything out beforehand can clear some likely territory, but for the most part, now that I've just thrown myself into writing a huge chunk of this current novel by intuition alone, the fear of the unknown scenes ahead corners me sometimes - I don't want to waste months working on scenes that don't work. But when I compare that to the fear of being no good at all, the fear of wasting my time and my hope, the fear of where the story is going seems positive - a challenge, rather than a put-down.

I think that's the key, really. Finding the fear that's the most positive, the most productive, and sticking with it.


Check out Sarah  Cypher's blog here - and the Threepenny Editor  here.

You can buy Brave on the Page here on Powell'

Sarah wrote her own blog post in response to our conversation, and you can read it here

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