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About Theresa Nichols Schuster
- Theresa Nichols Schuster
- Theresa Nichols Schuster is author of "Brittle Silver" and "We Are the Warriors" a 2015 USA Regional Excellence Book Award Finalist. She currently lives in southwest Montana where she appreciates the wonders of nature, family, friends, a bit of pottery.
Sunday, November 17, 2013
Deeply immersed over the past two months in a new edit of my young adult novel, "We Are the Warriors," I found myself burning the midnight oil as I plunged somewhat bravely forward. I often find the task of trimming and cutting well-chosen words, scenes and even characters particularly challenging. A short poem I wrote three years ago during an edit (of yes, the same novel) probably describes my experience better.
Daring to Edit
The murderous blade,
That unholy instrument in the writer's hand,
Who dares to take that first cut?
Will it hurt
as carefully chosen words fall
to the floor, rejected?
Where to begin this bloody carnage?
It must start.
We resist, hoping it is not true.
Hoping the diagnosis is wrong.
Will these trimmed limbs
ever be useful again?
Or will they be lost forever?
Such intimate extensions,
Gone, lost, forgotten.
Honestly, my feelings about editing have changed a bit over the past three years. It is still difficult to cut carefully crafted scenes and characters that have been part of a novel for nearly five years, but having a novel that flows and is clear is more valuable than the pain of losing meticulously selected prose. I found the editing this time around rather interesting as I took out unnecessary characters, then inserted a familiar character into a scene.
It was fascinating how the characters had such developed personalities that the dialogue, comments and exchanges became transformed to reflect how differently these people would interact with others. It was a delight to see how the shape of the story shifted and the richness of the individual personalities grew.
I'm not much of a coffee drinker, but occasionally a nicely ground, beautifully aromatic, enticing cup of coffee can help initiate the editing process. During this reflective endeavor I have come to appreciate the gift of editing as an integral part of writing.
Oh, my little foray into the social magazines/tabloids was rather interesting. I found I enjoyed the articles about women, especially strong women, articles about movies and books and the pieces about hot psychological drama. I also found myself attracted to the odd fashion photos, even though I'm not very "fashionable." Just seeing what some celebrities would wear was a kick.
As I thought about writing my own "society article," I realized how little is truly new in human nature and the world. I guess the names, faces and places change. The creative challenge with writing is to have it sound new, exciting and enticing. Maybe letting the unique personalities speak in their voice and also in the "common" voice we all share is the gift of our writing the words down.
The short story I invented was about a strong woman who spray painted the street in front of a church, picketed outside the church on Sunday and took out ads. Needless to say she received threats in response to her activities to fight oppression and injustice and warnings about losing her ultimate salvation. Sounds too true to be made up.
How do strong, intelligent women live in the world? Our lives are a true story.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Alongside some amazing, very intense and even violent weather, the frequent positive summer attractions have captivated my attention. The smorgasbord of delightful interruptions throughout the warm months definitely competes with my attempts to set pen to paper. The distractions of gardens and lawns with which to play, soaking up pervasive sunshine whether it is on a hike, walk or bike ride - and of course, there is the awesome food of the season...gorgeous cherries, blueberries, raspberries (I still am looking for that perfect batch of peaches…maybe an awesome peach truck will appear soon.) and all the great dishes to be made from fresh fruit and the fun time spent grilling outside and visiting, all conspire to keep me away from writing.
During this time and in between my pleasant warm weather diversions, I have played a bit with Julia Cameron's Right to Write. It was her "Bad Writing" chapter that spoke rather invitingly to me. She discussed how writing doesn't always have to know where it is going. We are taught that good writing consists of progressing in nice orderly thoughts and structures. But often, Julia surmised, this type of writing does not engage us emotionally.
So in order to be a good writer it helps to let yourself be a bad writer. Just let everything out - then sort it out later if it needs sorting. "So much 'good' writing doesn't seem to care. It is too cerebral, calculated, and calibrated," Julia states.
Cameron marvels at the juicy, intense, shocking writing of the tabloids. The surprises, high-stakes stories and jolting revelations, the good "bad" writing that populates the grocery story tabloids can be fertile ground for a fresh look at prose.
She suggests a writing exercise to assist in by-passing the "perfectionism" writer's block...buy three tabloids, or if you can't find them, buy a People or Us magazine. Cut out ten stories you like and save them in a file folder, reflecting over a period of time on what attracts you to these pieces. Then later, set aside some time, about half an hour, to write your own imaginary tabloid story as rapidly, uncensored and freely as possible.
True confessions; I've never read a tabloid. Is that a sheltered existence? Or a serious lack of curiosity? Or possibly a sign of too scrupulous of a character basis? As is...often they just seemed too fakey and untrue to me. So with a little reluctance I contemplated the least offensive place to look for a tabloid. My first attempt at an out-of-the-way convenience store and gas station left me empty handed, not a single tabloid there.
Several busy days kept me from looking more earnestly. Eventually I found myself taking cover in a bookstore during a torrential downpour. So I took the easy way out and bought copies of People and Us, still definitely outside my typical genre for reading.
The rest of the story of my foray into good "bad" writing remains to be created. I do wonder what stories will attract me, what I will learn about writing and what my "shocking" tabloid story will read like. We'll see...I do have yet to read a tabloid, one of these days...What kind of imaginary tabloid story would you write? Who would be the characters? What plot, action or storyline would you invent?
Sunday, May 19, 2013
I clearly remember the trepidation I felt as one of my first newspaper articles with a philosophical-theological angle was published. Living in a small town where so many people know each other, I was a bit edgy about what others would think about my views and my diverse assimilation of various spiritual traditions and paths.
As it turns out, in some sense, we are what we write. Someone once said that all writing is autobiographical. No matter what we write, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, short stories, novels, newspaper articles or poetry, it all expresses something of who we are and what we believe or conversely don't believe. Even if the presentation of the subject is in apparently amoral or sociopathic terms, it still reflects how we think.
So then, what propels us to write, to cross this chasm of scrutiny and public judgment? Are we imparted with the desire to express the paradox, wonder, and musings of what our world appears to be?
George Steiner, in his "Lessons of the Masters," points out that all writing is "didactic," that is it intends to teach. It is claimed that as writers we should not moralize in our fiction, nor be so calculating as to write with an express purpose to change an individual's view through a story. In reality, how can we but not subtly lend influence with our own views and values?
Steiner goes on to insist, "The pulse of teaching is persuasion. The teacher solicits attention, agreement, and, optimally collaborative dissent. He or she invites trust..." As writers we imbue our pieces with the trust that we will be read with an open mind and friendly spirit. This may or may not actually happen. Of course, only if trust is reciprocal, is there actually a "teaching moment" or the possibility of the exchange of ideas, visions and reflections with the reader.
Is this then truly the yearning for many writers, to take the myriad of possible connections of letters, words and sounds to create an experience that invites, instructs, inspires, provokes and invites comparison and assimilation?
Additionally, Steiner surmises that, "To teach greatly is to awaken doubts in the pupil, to train for dissent. It is to school the disciple for departure ("Now leave me" commands Zarathustra). A valid Master should, at the close, be alone."
As we put forward our written words, we may be challenged, ignored, misunderstood or contradicted. But in so doing, we have communicated, given voice to that which is within, which is at one and the same time individual and communal. Writing always entails a risk, an inherent nakedness of our personhood, of our visions. Our exposure is in a form that in many ways we are unable to modulate or personally mentor.
We cannot see the eyes of those with whom we communicate; we cannot notice their change in facial expression or tone of voice as our words come to them. We are not able to explain or correct their interpretation of what we have said. Our words written on the piece of paper or screen live separate from us, but always intimately connected.
This brings me around to my use of the word foible in my last blog post...Foible means, "an odd feature or mild failing in a person's character. In fencing it is the weaker part of a sword blade between the middle and the point."
So if we are to wield our "swords," to grab them by the hilt and use the blade for effective action, we will take our abilities, characteristics, visions, talents, vocations and skills and put them to use. Whether it is by writing or many other of our endeavors, we would be wise to be aware of the weaknesses and foibles, within all of our strengths and abilities.
That which we are best at, that which we excel at or pride ourselves in, in some ways has faults, mild failings within it. These foibles can result in unskillful actions, failures or blindness. But by choosing to act, to take up the sword, we will express our talents, strengths and abilities and so too the faults that are a part of us.
So if you find yourself a bit intimidated about writing for all to see, you can be "confident" that parts of yourself will shine through in your writing. In sharing your common humanity and the unique expression of yourself, what you write will be a gifted presentation with an invitation to trust and be persuaded. It will also contain the subtleties of your foibles. Your writing amazingly will have its own life, separate from your intentions, as it is assimilated by individuals with wide variations of experiences and world-views.
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
I really don't like writing exercises. I don't know if it is because I am a bit lazy at heart and repetition sounds like work without purpose or if it is my desire to do something useful or directed supersedes my willingness to practice. One of those "foibles" of mine... (Oh, do look up the root and origin of the word "foible." Very interesting!)
Anyways, I decided to embark a bit unwillingly on a suggested writing practice that consisted of creating several paragraphs composed of strings of words that begin with the same or similar sounds...often called alliteration.
So I began writing with no intention, no purpose, no direction or reason to write... all very odd for me. In my mind, I figured I would just be writing gobblty-goop, nonsensical stuff of no import.
So, as the silly thoughts slipped smoothly from my poised, pointy pen, I pondered the subtle subterranean strands streaming onto sunlit paper and in so doing discovered delightfully, the dimly discerned dark, dusky depths. How can this be?... beyond bemused, the beautiful, believable became one with being.
Thus follows my little creation...
As I slid into the smooth swimming suit, my most modest body melted as though one with the mauve material. Without wanting to wear such a tight, twisty top, my bare body boomeranged against the stretchy spandex that smothered silky skin.
So, slowly I slunk down the stairs towards the, oh so public pool. Pondering my proud presentation, I lingered, loitering as laughter lifted lightly and meandered musically and meaninglessly like mist on a moist morning.
Dragging the door open, my figure finally found its way toward the frigid fluid. I dropped despairingly deep down into the dark depths.
Could any kind creature cruelly keep, so sweet a secret that here happens to be, such heavenly a hideout that the whole of humanity hopes to be lost in this huge humid hug?
I found the wonder of the unplanned creativity of simple "writing play" accessing the ethereal essence from our hidden worlds of years ago, seemingly lifetimes ago... The marvel of emotions, scenes, senses that inhabit us, just under the surface.
This type of writing can be a tapping of our subconscious, that mysterious, highly intelligent, creative, obtuse part of us. So seldom do we encounter this free flowing reservoir of ideas, feelings, subtle connections and deep wisdom that is always a part of us.
My invitation to you, is if you journal, doodle or just play with words, try a little alliteration. String together like sounding words and let it be its own creation. By the way, kids just love the musical sound of alliteration! Best to be read out loud. It is great play.
Sunday, March 10, 2013
Also better titled, "Keeping, cajoling, bribing or in any other ways ensnarling the skills of reliable editors or proof readers..."
To begin with, I don't have all the answers to this dilemma. Sometimes a good editor for a writing project is a gift, just a surprise delight in an on-going writing process.
Most of our family members and friends either feel unqualified to critique our work, which may be true; live in fear of offending by their responses or thoughts, which may also be true or don't have the time and energy to devote to a quality edit, alas, this also may be true.
Sometimes it is a challenge to get anyone to read our budding projects, much less provide constructive criticism.
I have had the luck or privilege of a husband who enjoys proofing and editing writing. However, I have noticed that after long, repeated edits, he loses his fine eye for detail. He also will not give broad suggestions or observations about my work, assumedly because he realizes he has to live with me!
My daughter, a writer herself and recently completing her Master's in English, and her husband, have been great editors and encouragers in my writing process. So too, I have offered my editing and proofing as my daughter explores and creates her own literary works. I have learned not to abuse their generosity with too frequent of requests for material editing.
My current novel, with already five to ten major edits behind it and maybe one or two more to go, was a product of varieties of inputs. Several years ago, my daughter was my first major reader. She gave me feedback primarily on character development and some plot and process issues.
After a few major rewrites, I was fortunate to have a cousin of mine, a talented writer, high school librarian of many years and soon to be completed MFA, provide a wonderful, detailed edit of my novel. She was able to catch my repetitious poor writing habits and suggest some creative literary tools to improve on my presentation. I am very indebted to her willingness to share substantial time and effort in improving my writing ability.
In the process of editing, Niki taught me a simple but helpful way to read another author's work and give feedback. She suggested that when we review a work, we observe what we liked, what we noticed and what we wondered about as we read. This type of reflection and subsequent sharing of our insights or questions gives power and process to the author. One then can share positive strengths, incongruities and questions about plot or characters with the writer, while not taking away their creative energy or ability to choose plot and styles.
One book my cousin suggested was Ursula K. Le Guin's, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or Mutinous Crew. This is a delightful reflection on storytelling and methods to improve one's writing. Although I typically don't enjoy writing exercises, some of these were fun and creative.
I also have received helpful suggestions during sessions with literary agents at writers' conferences. Their expert, quick observations about story and plot lines, character development or even the sometimes simple questions about the choice of title, have been very helpful in the process of writing my novel.
Some people are privileged to be part of a writer's group that provides support and feedback on writing projects. These types of groups can be very helpful. Sometimes they may be "closed" groups, only allowing members that match their "level" of writing, i.e. published vs. unpublished. A writer's group is useful when it matches the needs and personality of an individual writer.
The rare opportunity when a literary professional reads our work and gives constructive feedback can be a great asset. It may be couched in the "rejection" notice, but yet be valuable information to our continued writing, whether or not we entirely agree with the observations. Or even rarer, one can be given the privilege of working with literary professionals as their work moves towards publication.
Even though there are for-hire editors, most new writers cannot afford the investment and continue to work through family, acquaintances and writer's groups. There may come a time when the investment in a good "unrelated" editor may be timely and appropriate. It would then be imperative to investigate information about these editors, their skills, history and fees.
Wherever your writing is taking you, if even mainly for your own self-expression...enjoy the process, the freedom, the deep creativity... and may a few good readers, editors and proofers grace your journey, to the measure that you need...
Sunday, February 3, 2013
Who of us, as non-published writers, has not dreamed about a novel or book of our very own creation, our name and title splashed across the cover, just waiting to be discovered by eager readers. Even if we haven't completed the first chapter of our novel, we still dream about being "in print."
In the recent past, paying to have your own work printed, hopefully distributing a few copies to family members, a few friends and maybe some limited sales, was often given the derogatory term, "vanity press." Three or four years ago at my first writers conference, I caught the not so subtle hint that self-publishing or financing your own book printing was frowned on, especially by those who were published or at least well-educated in literature and writing.
The veiled reference was that self-publishing was not a dignified undertaking for the hopeful writer. A writer, it was assumed, had to go through the grueling task of submitting one's work through a query letter to literary agents, typically buried by thousands of letters. After many rejections, an agent may want to see your work, or you may be lucky enough to know someone, who knows someone. Then the literary agent may or may not offer to represent your work. If the agent offers to represent you, they in turn spend possibly years pitching your work to publishers. If you don't progress or succeed in this process and you choose to do your own publishing and printing, well, that was given the stigma of vanity publishing and was considered not really being published.
Amazingly, this year, only three years after I was informed about the need for real writers to endure a tedious process of approval, nearly half of the workshops and presentations at the writers conference I attended were about how to self-publish through e-book formats. The encouragement and information shared was about how to get your own work out in whatever method you can.
During his presentation at the conference, Mark Coker, CEO and founder of Smashwords.com, an e-format, self-publishing and distributing company, stated that this is a uniquely creative and powerful time for authors. At this time in history authors have the ability to get their ideas, information and creative writing out to readers through relatively easy and inexpensive methods. Authors are not dependant on the approval process of the mainstream publishers to determine what is published and available to read.
Coker provides several free downloadable book articles to assist with the self-publishing process. They include; Smashwords Style Guide, Smashwords Book Marketing Guide and Secrets to E-Book Publishing Success. Once an article or book is formatted according to the needs as listed in the Style Guide, it can be uploaded to Smashwords.com, which then processes it through the "Meatgrinder" to make sure the text is flowable in different e-formats. If it passes this process and has a "cover" it may be accepted for the Premium Catalog and then provided to other e-book distributors.
Coker acknowledged that the great majority of self-published authors sell very few books and that the self-publishing world does allow for a lot of substandard work. A quality control loop is missed without the literary agents, editors and publishers. To counter this short-coming, he encouraged authors to do exceptional work with their writing, editing and proofing.
After all this is said and done, the question an author is left with, as always is, "How can I get people to read what I wrote?" or in commercial terms, "How to do I market my book?"
This is where the shoe meets the road, the pedal to the metal, the finger hits the power button. How does one get their work out where others may find it, know about it and read it? Marketing one's work can be a difficult and time consuming project. Authors accepted by publishers through the traditional route may possibly have the leg up in gaining assistance with marketing. However, even here there seems to be frequent complaints from published authors that publishing houses are not stepping up to the plate to assist with marketing. The success or failure of the book and its sales is often left to the responsibility of the author.
Marketing or getting one's materials read remains the most challenging, intimidating and frustrating part of the writing process. The deeper "dream" to be read, to be listened to or to entertain is still difficult even with the removal of the cost or stigma of "vanity press" and the relative ease of e-publishing. With or without vanity press or self-publishing, being heard is an accomplishment that remains yet and still a difficult task.
Thursday, January 17, 2013
When was the last time you wrote whatever leapt into your awareness? Maybe you already regularly write. It could be you are hoping to jumpstart a writing process or give new inspiration to your words and thoughts.
Parking oneself in a chair with pen in hand and writing paper or a journal on one's lap engenders a rare opportunity to slow down our usual racing mind. So often, our brain is teaming with ideas, plans, emotions and thoughts of events both the past and future. Here, maybe in our favorite chair or quiet hideout, we can pull in the reins of the charging horse, calm and quiet the tumultuous din and observe the countryside we have so blindly been galloping through.
For me, writing or journaling my musings allows me to actually follow a single train of thought, to let that event, thought or dream be filled-out with the attending emotions, questions and subtleties that are on the edge of consciousness - just hanging there, waiting to be noticed and brought forward. Therein discovering a richer level of awareness and acknowledging the sometimes deeper or more difficult questions that may be presented.
Occasionally the gifts of an "ah-ha!" moment or a resolution of tension or confusion is given. Or sometimes it is simply the ability to "voice" what is within.
There are myriads of different types of journaling. For some people journals are records of mainly factual events such as weather, precipitation, meetings and events. Others are poetic endeavors full of the inspirations and verbal melody of free thought association, without care to punctuation, proper grammar or sentence structure. Some contain writing and reflections on dreams, hopes, fears, significant happenings or powerful emotions. There is no one right way to journal - which makes it an exceptionally personal and free undertaking.
Fifteen years ago, I even began an "exercise" journal to add to my regular journaling. I used it to record and inspire my daily or weekly exercise routine. Over the years it gradually also became a health journal, a place I could jot down my health issues and attempts to resolve them. Time has a way of providing real forgetfulness. I have marveled and been surprised at the turn of events or my forgetting about how something had happened.
When I was raising small children my journal entries were pretty meager. The demands, exhaustion and high level of activity with keeping little ones going left little time or energy for writing. Those days probably were some of the most full, interesting and challenging hours of my life.
I have told those close to me to not judge my life by the tone of many of my journal pages. I have used my journal to work through and let out some of my less than pleasant emotions - be it as it may.
Over the 35 years of journaling those pages have displayed the joys and struggles of spiritual longing, the creativity of significant dreams, wonders of key life events, the complexity of emotions and relationships and at times the reoccurring boredom and loneliness that sneaks up behind me.
Most of us don't intend or even wish to have our journals read by anyone else. Some people write with the intention or eventual desire to dispose of the words in some fashion. Others wish to tease their writing to find the hidden gems, the unique twists of vocabulary and thought, barely exposed in the tilled soil.
An excellent jumpstart to writing and creative inspiration is Julie Cameron's, The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. It is a series of writing and reflection exercises of "daily pages" and encouragement to go on "artist's dates" to help access the inner creative urges and dreams that are within each of us. Recently, a young couple I know gathered with six other people to journey through the 12-week The Artist's Way series together. They met once a week and shared their reflections from their daily pages and weekly artist's dates. The Artist's Way is a wonderful tool to free up inner creativity, access buried dreams and hopes and provide a format to one's writing and inspirations.
Anyone can journal and do it anyway they like. The invitation is to begin and let the process be its own without any great expectations. If we journal a long time, our writing and thoughts will vary in content and complexity from one time or phase of our life to another. Yet too, we may see the similarities, patterns and processes that carryover 20 or 30 years and more and return once again.
Grab a favorite pen, a blank sheet of paper, spiral notebook or carefully chosen journal and plop into a comfortable chair, ready to break into that expanse of untouched fiber with what teams and stirs within and around the unique, gifted human being that you are.