Balancing Humanity

FINDING BALANCE

Excerpted from Raindrops of Love For a Thirsty World
by Eileen Workman

BELOVED, I invite you to notice the large number of men who are embracing their feminine qualities at this time. Notice too, how many women are embracing their masculine qualities. What good news this is! Know that this internal re-balancing of human energy will enable you to trust and work more intimately and cooperatively with all others, even as your species draws upon the vast and potent powers of creation. The divine masculine power of creation, when channeled through the divine feminine energy of love, produces a strong enough foundation to support, affirm, and perpetually advance the whole of the living reality.

Know that everything you have experienced prior to this moment, including any feelings of division or mistrust that arose between your masculine and feminine aspects, has unfolded perfectly and was necessary for your own inner growth. However, the time has arrived for you to focus on calling forth much more of the loving power of the divine feminine, so that your divine masculine powers of creation can finally mature. In this way you will become fully integrated, self-actualized, and free to create—from a stance of love—all that your passions, skills, and capacities are inspiring you to deliver into the world.

— Eileen Workman
Author of Raindrops of Love For a Thirsty World
and Sacred Economics (The Currency of Life)

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Confronting criticism

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Confronting criticism is an essential right of passage that every writer faces along that bumpy road toward publication. Whether you accept or dismiss critical feedback may be crucial to who you are and how you will function as a serious writer.

Okay, so let’s keep this simple. Others may disagree but, for me—as both fiction writer and content editor—only two types of criticism exist. Sooner or later, intentionally or not, most writers will confront either constructive criticism or counterproductive criticism. And knowing the difference—accepting/incorporating what may work, dismissing/ignoring what will not work—could determine our book’s success. If our intention is publication, sooner or later we will face a beta reader (non-professional editor) or a professional editor’s dreaded red pen. The secret is learning to accept (and potentially use) constructive criticism, treating such feedback as another essential tool in your creative toolbox.

How important is constructive criticism? Time for a new rule. Rule #99: Only two types of criticism exist: constructive and/or counterproductive criticism. As writers, we must allow ourselves sufficient head space to consider—meaning accept or dismiss—criticism that can improve the integrity of our work, and also to jettison advice which can detract or derail our story. Seeking credible criticism should not be about collecting accolades or kudos, but rather about improving our work.

When confronting criticism, one word of advice: Leave your dark and stormy writer’s ego outside the door, with your galoshes (…look it up!), mittens and wet umbrella.

It’s crucial to understand the difference between constructive criticism and positive feedback. An easy mistake is confusing positive criticism as constructive criticism and negative criticism as counterproductive criticism because—nope—that’s not how it works. In fact, the opposite is usually true.

The Casual Critique.
(See The Professional Critique below.)

Early on, most writers are hungry for feedback. Lacking a legion of professional editors, agents and publishers hanging outside the window to help us along, a writer’s left with friends and family and, if we’re lucky, an intimate little writer’s group. (More about that in a moment.) And, sure, there’s nothing wrong with asking the guy next door, a distant cousin who writes greeting card jingles, or our Great Aunt Isabel, for advice. If we trust their intellect and our own instincts, certainly we can enlist their support. However, I suggest treating any familial feedback with cautious optimism.

Do be wary of a friend or family member’s beaming critique: Your book is positively stunning. Your writing is poetic, your voice angelic, and your plot absolutely breathtaking.” Such accolades can be the worst possible feedback a writer can receive, should they be spoken to placate or motivate (or politely ditch) you. Pleasant words to hear, sure—but ultimately, if spoken without integrity, the joke’s on the writer.

A better choice? Seek out a beta reader—a non-relational, non-professional fiction reader—someone who reads and critiques simply for the love of reading. And, yes, a well-read friend can serve as a beta reader, but again—seeking criticism shouldn’t be about collecting accolades or kudos. (Signing a publisher’s contract and aggressive book sales will deliver that particular message.) As writers, we’re looking for helpful criticism that identifies overlooked or illogical flaws that weaken or confuse or obscure our writing and/or our message. We’re seeking ways to improve our efforts, and that occurs through occasionally hard-hitting feedback that identifies flaws and, if we’re lucky, offers potential solutions as well.

Let’s say you’re writing a murder mystery. Your protagonist is a disgruntled private investigator. The feedback: “Your protagonist does stupid things” isn’t remotely helpful. However, a thoughtful critique such as; “Your protagonist seems to get by on lucky or coincidental occurrences, but never through logic or cunning or self-reliant sleuthing. I think your protagonist needs to be more proactive in solving the mystery” is pretty good advice. Whether or not you’re able to accept such (potentially) constructive feedback depends upon your ability to free your mind, silence your ego, and consider creative alternatives to your preconceived notions. And writers must trust their own instincts in determining whether or not solicited criticism is valid and useful.

By the way, I know more than a few writers who are loathe to accept any sort of feedback. These writers (some who are struggling with their efforts) abhor suggestions and/or possible solutions to potential problems. They assume—incorrectly—that a novel must be a solitary effort, and that any outside advice somehow diminishes and/or voids the author’s ‘ownership’ of the story. My response is a resounding, “Bogus!” Even if you accept feedback that ultimately forces you to rewrite your entire novel—the book is unquestionable yours and yours alone. Every word that is either axed or that remains resolutely in place (and in what precise order) is ultimately your decision. That’s your call. It’s your book. Period.

A word about writer’s groups and workshops.

I’m aware that some writers are skeptical (or outright afraid) to join or begin a writer’s group. For years I was one of those writers. Me? I didn’t need to join no stinkin’ writer’s group—until, on the advice of a writing friend, I joined one. For several years thereafter, the six (sometimes 7 or 8) of us, all fledgling, earnest but unpublished wannabes, gathered weekly for three grueling hours and learned the fine art of proactive listening.* We also learned to trust one another and, week by week, traded a multitude of beneficial writing suggestions and solutions.

A writer’s group can also train you to not only receive, but to offer, constructive criticism. A group/workshop can motivate you to choose words more precisely and write more consistently, and can harden that notoriously fragile, creative psyche—because sooner or later, somebody’s going to hate your book and will delight in telling you so. And when they do, my advice is this: Don’t take it personally. Collecting rejections and weathering disgruntled readers comes with the territory. Just that those of us who’ve already dealt with critical voices are far more immune to the prattle of strangers.

Whenever somebody tells me that they couldn’t get through a book of mine, I simply smile and offer my condolences. “I’m sorry to hear that. Hopefully my next effort will be more to your liking.” And, for the more fearless among us: I’m sorry to hear that. I’d love to know what you found lacking. Would you care to elaborate? Hey, can I buy you a beer?” Because why not turn a close encounter into a learning experience? You’ll seldom receive a more heartfelt critique.

Learning to ignore toxic or misguided criticism—“You’re stupid! You’re ugly! Your mother dresses you funny!” Or, “Your book sucks doggie balls!”—really is a valuable life lesson. If and when you eventually learn to shrug off such mindless or insincere criticism—an exquisite, clarifying, joyous occasion, by the way—you’ll find yourself a much happier writer. And certainly a happier person.

But I digress. Personally speaking, I used my experience in a local writer’s group to eventually attune my brain to hear every criticism about my style, my plot, my characters (good or bad) with an open mind, to evaluate —sometimes for moments, sometimes for weeks—specific bits of feedback that I considered potentially important. I once jettisoned my entire first act—118 pages—because of my group’s near unanimous advice that my story “really starts on page 119.” Seriously. I gutted one hundred and eighteen pages because my laborious introduction (and way too many secondary characters) did not directly relate to the story that would eventually emerge. I reworked Act I from the ground up and managed to fit my essential introductions into a far more dramatically paced 25 pages, then reworked another dozen or so pages into a feasible segue that blended seamlessly (one could assume) with the remainder of the story. But I spent almost three months pondering the edit before I pulled the trigger and began the rewrites. Still, I don’t regret it for an instant.

One word of advice. If you do find yourself deleting pages, keep a backup copy of your original work. I make constant back-up copies in Dropbox (cloud storage app), because every once in a while I follow some crazy urge, change or kill a dozen pages, only to realize ‘nope—stupid move.’ So keep multiple back ups, just in case.

If you’ve been seeking a local writer’s group and can’t find one, consider starting your own. If you have choices—meaning there are several existing groups in your area—perhaps you can locate other writers in your genre. It’s not necessary of course, just a little icing on the cake. Personally, I think intimate groups of 4-8 can work nicely. Fewer than four opinions and you may find yourself lacking sufficient commentary. With more than 7 or 8 active members, you may discover insufficient reading and critiquing time for each writer. (My weekly group typically ran for 3+ hours. Then tedium begins to creep in. Constructive criticism requires sharp minds and keen observations. So keep it short, keep it sharp.)

With the advent of online forums, writer chats and aggregate communities (such as Reddit’s s/writing) one can find numerous opportunities to meet fellow writers, without even getting out of your ‘jammies. If you can find a few like-minded souls, see if you can branch off into a more exclusive, reliable digital network. The internet—for better or for worse—has negated the need for face-to-face interaction. With the right connections, online interactions can prove just as valuable. Personally, however, I do recommend face-to-face interaction. Writers are hermetic enough. And, like I said, confronting constructive criticism face-to-face builds character.

Writing workshops—those all-day, weekend or weekly events, can provide powerful motivation. Can wield tremendous influence. Can provide a safe haven and a soothing sense of camaraderie. Because, no, you’re not in this alone. But, yes, you’ll pay for the experience, and a week long event (including room and board) can run a thousand bucks or more. Worth the price of admission? Established workshops aren’t for all of us, but for many writers, they can provide a perfect environment to unpack all those tucked away emotions. Because nothing can mess with one’s head more than the isolation of spending three or six or twelve months confronting a manuscript, while everyone else in the world (or so it seems) parties their nights away. Your best revenge is by adding your name to their crowded bookshelves.

I’ve found longer workshops (a week or more) to provide the motivation to keep one writing. You’re ditching reality and jumping down the rabbit hole—spending days in what I consider a sort of cerebral surreality that feels almost psychedelic in it’s intensity, and with the ability to strip the mundanity of everyday existence from your psyche. You’ll eat, sleep and live writing. You’ll bond with other writers, make some nice connections and you’ll even find a few lifelong friends. I found my wife. So, yeah, I highly recommend it.

The bottom line? Sooner or later, every writer can use a good set of alternative eyes. Stephen King had Tabitha. Leo Tolstoy had Sophia, Harper Lee had Truman Capote, and history wonders if Stephen, Leo and Harper would even be published today without the help of some pretty loyal and brilliantly opinionated company.**

Sooner or later, every published writer is expected to expose her/his work, warts and all, to public scrutiny. My suggestion is, the sooner you develop the crucial social skill of accepting criticism, the better. Don’t let your own critical fears (rational or not!) dissuade you from a second opinion. Every writer’s ultimate goal is to be seen by millions. If you can’t imagine your work being exposed to a beta reader or two, I suspect coping with the potentially soul-crushing reality of mass public scrutiny will be far more difficult to endure. (So start small and work your way up!)

Critiquing Etiquette

A brief note regarding soliciting criticism:

Don’t offer a potential beta reader an incomplete manuscript in rough draft mode. If your novel’s in pieces, unfinished and unwieldy, you’re likely to receive feedback in the same piecemeal, uncertain, unwieldy manner. How can a critic give any sort of credible advice if the work is raw, unfinished and merely pending? This sort of symbiotic relationship is ultimately worthless, a waste of time for both you and the reader. If your book’s half done, you’re essentially asking someone to test-drive a new car without wheels or an engine.

If you’re lost in the middle of a novel and seeking advice on how to continue, instead of offering a half-baked manuscript riddled with blank patches and unfinished thoughts, provide a concise summary in outline form—as comprehensive and detailed a plot-line as you’re able. You’re not looking for polishing or line-editing, you’re seeking basic story options—and, technically, not really criticism at all. You’re seeking help in developing a fictional roadmap from A to Z. You’re still constructing the puzzle. Seeking viable ideas. So, as my old Granny used to tell me, “Don’t worry about the wedding date if you haven’t found a girl yet.”

If you’re lost in the beginning of a story—you’ve written 5 or 10 pages of an impending novel and get stuck—stop writing the novel. Seriously. If you like what you’ve written but don’t know how to proceed, change gears! See if you can finish the work as a short story. Give yourself the opportunity to write 10-20 pages with a definitive middle and end. If you find the idea of writing 300-400 pages too daunting, break it down into more manageable pieces. Think of yourself as writing a series of integrated short stories instead of chapters—and worry not about subsequent chapters you intend to write. (See Rule #16: Focus On The Now.) If you find yourself with a complete story, maybe you’re on your way to writing a collection. However, if you find yourself with more to say on the matter—keep writing, one page at a time.

By the way, whether you’re writing a novel, non-fiction, a short story, even a cover letter to an editor, there’s nothing wrong with soliciting “what now?” advice. More than once (a great deal more) I’ve run into a brick wall and, directed toward anyone within earshot, I’ve lamented, Where should I go from here? Typically, a writer will have various options (and boundaries) in mind: Should the new schoolmarm, Becky Sue, marry Sheriff Bob—or should she be skeptical of his smarmy, big-city ways? Should she marry Bob in Act I, and have them confront Black Bart together? Or should she confront the conniving Bart alone, and bring in Sheriff Bob for a daring, Act III rescue?

Two totally different stories, right? Both potentially interesting. Both viable novels. But if you’re having trouble deciphering Becky Sue’s intentions (i.e.; plot motivation and/or direction), you need not push ahead, trying to polish a final draft that ‘doesn’t feel right.’ When in doubt, it’s quite alright to ask important “what if?” questions, weigh your options and, if necessary, plot a new course.

Conversely, don’t offer friends and/or family—even if it’s your mom!—a complete 300 or 400 page manuscript and expect an overnight perusal. Proactive reading (that is, comprehensive understanding and the resulting rational feedback) is a lengthy, intense and often laborious process.

Better yet: If you’re looking for erstwhile advice, ask a friend or family member if they’d read the first 10 or 20 pages of your manuscript. It’s a far less obtrusive and demanding request. Shorter excerpts will prompt more in-depth feedback. If you like the resulting comments, and your reader(s) enjoy the assistance, either ask if they’ll read another 20 (or more!) pages, or wait for them to offer. If you have a friend who’s good at editing and is willing to take on the whole novel, awesome! But consider a bottle of wine or even a cash payment ($100-$200 if you can afford it) in return, or offer a return of services if you’re both writers.

The Professional Critique

If a literary agent or a commercial publisher accepts you or your manuscript, (congrats!) your options are truncated. Both agents and publishers are risking that you (and your manuscript) will be successful and profitable, and once they sign a writer as a client, each will strive to produce the best possible book possible. With rare exception, that success will be predicated upon your level of assistance.

Neither editor nor reputable publisher*** has the same visceral connection as the writer to a finished manuscript—and yet both parties have invested interests. A publisher has intrinsic knowledge about producing and marketing books, and if you find yourself in that enviable position of being a contracted writer, keep in mind that their opinions count. A freelance editor’s reputation depends upon delivering (to a publisher) a pristine, professional work of fiction. A legit publisher’s in-house editor has a paycheck to earn. A commercial publisher will drop upwards of $10K simply producing both a printed book (and cover), and an ebook for publication. Mainstream publishers may even risk additional tens of thousands on marketing, PR and in branding you as a viable—meaning capable of producing multiple profit-making or even best-selling books—author.

Agents and publishers who see the value of your work are typically happy to work with you, if rewrites are advised. Your input can be invaluable. And, sure, you can usually negotiate certain issues. But realize that you, as author, are no longer in charge. Working with a professional who’s intent on helping you publish a book can be both exasperating and blissful, but the fine art of compromise is essential. If you’re a writer loathe to cut a word, to rewrite a scene or take erstwhile advice…it’s time for a reality check, because usually their opinions will take precedence. So my best advice? Go with the flow.

I can’t speak for other publishers, editors or agents, but at MHP, we’ll sign a new author only with the contractual provision that the publisher has final say in all matters of publication. Meaning that we’ll spend days, weeks and sometimes months, helping you hone your manuscript. Listening to you. Dozens or hundreds of man-hours helping you to “get it right.” But the final say belongs to MHP, and hopefully (usually!) with the writer’s full blessing.

There may come a time, however, when neither the writer nor publisher is willing to budge on an issue. In such a case, the final option is yours. Are you willing to break your contract over the issue? Are you willing to seek publication elsewhere—or even self-publication—to ostensibly maintain your precise vision?

S’up to you.

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*Active listening vs. Proactive listening: Active listening is the fine art of fully engaging (listening or reading) and comprehending without judgement. Proactive listening requires a full measure of active listening and subsequently offering constructive criticism as well. And what is criticism, after all, but judgement? However, constructive criticism should consist of a fair and accurate assessment—a far more complex and difficult social skill.

**If you’re into films about writing/writers, check out The Last Station (2009, Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren). A mesmerizing, dramatic late-life biography of Leo and Sophia Tolstoy.

Also, since we’re here, check out Genius (2016, Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman), a worthwhile biopic of Scribner’s book editor Max Perkins, who shredded (for the best) works by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.

***What’s reputable? Agents and publishers who charge a service fee or fee-based services, reputable as they might seem (or actually be!), rely on a writer’s money to stay in business. Many such agents and indie publishers (including in-house editors) can indeed improve the quality of your work. But their professional existence (not your book’s success) is largely based on your bank account, and occasionally on your life’s savings. An unwary writer can spend tens of thousands or more, spend years rewriting based on a bevy of ‘professional opinions’—and still be no closer to selling a commercially viable book. Before signing a contract, ensure that you’re not obliged to pay any up-front fees to ‘ensure potential publication.’
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Loving Anna

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SHORT FICTION
by Eileen Workman

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Author’s bio follows the story

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SCHOOL MUST BE OVER. I hear the front door slam mid-afternoon, followed by the stomp of footsteps as Anna seeks me out. Unfortunately, the odor of melting spray starch leaves me all too easy to find.
. . . . .”I hate my nose,” Anna declares, having followed it straight to my ironing board in the den. Sullen, silent, she waits.
. . . . .My hand pauses high in the air and my lungs grow tight. How like my daughter to opt for war before homework. The silence between us lengthens while I hang up a shirt to postpone the inevitable. Stiff fingers struggle to fasten the collar button. Meanwhile, Anna hovers at the edge of my personal space, a tempest in jeans and a faded Billabong T-shirt. I hear the muffled tapping of her toes on the carpet, sense her folded arms, and feel the heat from her gaze scorching my shoulders. All five feet seven inches of this Amazon girl-child are now daring me to respond. Thin and fierce, Anna is primed for combat.
. . . . . I’m not yet ready to engage her.
. . . . . My Anna has only begun to bud. As yet, her gawkiness hides her classic beauty. Gumby limbs divert the attention of the less experienced boys, but grown men see Anna more clearly. I watch them watch her walk at times, feeling proud, amazed, and more than a little afraid for this child who will soon be a woman. Anna has my eyes, except hers blaze with an intensity mine long ago learned to hide from the outer world. Her hair—another genetic donation from me—spills across her shoulders; soft and thick, it gleams like polished wood. Last week she hated her hair as much as she hates her nose today. She begged me to allow her to dye it purple and shave it above her ears. I am still learning to ride out these sudden shifts in Anna’s emotions; to sidestep the whirlpools she constantly swirls in my path.
. . . . .Today it seems clear that Anna feels a need to unload some emotional energy onto someone—anyone, most likely. I just happen to be her favored, and handiest, target whenever this impulse begins to arise. I know this logically; sense I ‘should’ be able to ride out her moods with internal equanimity. Yet knowing and feeling are very different things.
. . . . .”I want a nose job,” she announces, voice tight and hammer hard.
. . . . .I manage to fasten the button at last. A smile tugs at the corners of my lips. Life with Anna has taught me to savor successes, no matter how small. I set aside the neatly hung shirt and consider this fresh Anna problem, silently examining and discarding my various options. Finally, I settle on what I believe is the safest ground upon which to rest.
. . . . .”What matters isn’t your nose,” I offer, “it’s how you feel about yourself on the inside.” Not condescending, but not committing to rhinoplasty either. Let her mull that a bit. With luck I’ve offered her nothing firm to attack.
. . . . .I wait, watching closely as she absorbs my words, then the skin on her forehead starts twitching. My heart sinks. Her expression tells me that—somewhere inside my vague non-answer—Anna has spotted a weakness.
. . . . .”That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. Here Mom…just look at it.” She scrunches her face and thrusts it aggressively into my own, as if to blind me with the proximity of the all-offending organ. I struggle to uncross my eyes and stare at the straight fine lines of her nose—which looks perfect to me, except for the criss-cross of wrinkles now etched in its Romanesque bridge. It’s the type of nose no respectable surgeon would touch.
. . . . .In truth, Anna’s is the nose I tried to purchase for myself a few years earlier, but after three thousand dollars and two weeks of pain, success eludes me still. Internal scar tissue pulls my nose rather far to the right of center, but I’ve chosen not to endure more pain to correct this brand-new problem. Anna knows this; I made the mistake of confessing my envy last year, in those more peaceful days before she learned to turn my words into weapons against me. The mere memory of those days brings grief, and I feel my back become stiff with reactive anger. So then; let the battle begin.
. . . . .”Fine,” I say, sounding sharper than I had intended. “You can save your money and get it fixed once you can afford to pay for it. It’s your face, after all.” I realize I’ve tossed her a clip of fresh ammunition, but it’s too late now to withdraw. I close my eyes and steady myself for the fury I know she’ll unleash.
. . . . .”You’re so unfair,” she hollers back at me, manufacturing wounded tears. “When Jason asked for a car last year, you bought him a brand-new Mustang. A nose job’s less than half the price of a car, but you don’t care if I’m happy.”
. . . . .I step back warily, letting Anna occupy the high ground she’s claimed for her own. No point in reminding her that Jason needed a car to commute to college, or that the Mustang was our high school graduation gift to our eldest son. Anna doesn’t see shades of gray these days. Only black, and white—and apparently, Mustang red.
. . . . .The tears come so easily to her. I, who seem to have lost my power to weep, marvel at the way she holds them, just so, inside her lids, not allowing them to spill. Their falling would break the spell of rage, and Anna is nowhere near ready to release me. I can feel her creeping toward me, ever so intently, along a murderous tightrope that spans my internal chasms of guilt and pity, yet she doesn’t stumble. Her sense of balance leaves me breathless, makes me ache for her in some deep and primal place.
. . . . .”That’s not true,” I say, still fighting to recover my calm. I am, after all, the adult in this new passion play. I should be able to maintain some self-control. “I care about your happiness a great deal.” Hesitation; then I hear myself add…”Although sometimes I don’t know why I bother.”
. . . . .Damn. I’ve done it now. Pushed her even closer to her own internal abyss.
. . . . .Tears spill then, as fury breaks loose like a fire in Anna’s eyes. “I hate you!” she screams at me, stabbing my heart with her words. “You’ll never understand me at all.”
. . . . .She speaks the truth, I realize, but there’s a limit to what a mother should have to endure. I’m sliding past mine very swiftly.
. . . . .”Go to your room!” I order, feeling myself becoming, in that moment, the sternly unyielding woman she loves to detest. “And don’t come out until you’ve figured out how to be civil.” That last part gets wasted. Anna’s door clips the end of my sentence like a gunshot.
. . . . .I finish my ironing, but my movements are mechanical and my thoughts flit to other things. How, I wonder, did my daughter and I reach this point? I recall fondly her chubby infant fingers pulling hungrily at my breasts. I see the squealing toddler who ran to me in urgent need of a hug after every tumble. I can still remember the pinafore-dressed, plucky first grader who hesitated in the doorway of room seven and gave me a shaky thumbs-up before heading inside. When had all those sundresses and sandals given way to ripped jeans and Doc Martins? When did her hands—the very ones that used to cling to me with such neediness and trust—start choosing her own hips instead? It occurs to me then that it must have been about the same time that my hands began balling in fury instead of reaching out to soothe and summon.
. . . . .I feel trapped inside my own painful thoughts as I unplug the iron. I fold up my board and re-cap the spray starch can. The cupboard where these things belong stands invitingly near Anna’s bedroom; after stowing them, I can’t resist the urge to knock on her door. Though she barges into my private space at the most inopportune times (seeking razors, shampoo, and lately even a tampon) I don’t dare invade her space in that same way. Anna demands her privacy, considers it a badge of adulthood; to grant her the illusion costs me nothing.
. . . . .”What do you want?” The quiver in her voice informs me that her tides have already shifted. I do know my daughter well enough to realize that her highly compressed, adolescent world has been shaken in some profound way—by something that likely has nothing to do with me. Her anger with me she will hold for hours, perhaps even days or weeks. It is only with great reluctance that she lets it go. This current, bleak mood is therefore not of my doing.
. . . . .”May I come in?” I ask.
. . . . .She meets me with lengthy silence. Then I hear a terse, “I guess so.”
. . . . .I enter to see her crying again, only this time the tears look real. They gloss her cheeks and paint dark, wet stripes down her tee shirt. Liquid anguish. I stand there in stillness and watch her weep, feeling powerless in the face of so much emotion.
. . . . .”What is it?” I ask her gently. I fear she’ll tell me; yet feel strangely panicked she won’t. “What’s really going on here, sweetheart?”
. . . . .Anna flings her slender body, face-down, across the full length her bed. Through uncontrolled sobs, she eventually whimpers, “Heather told all of our friends that they shouldn’t like me anymore.”
. . . . .I stare at her, not comprehending this as a crisis. “And…?”
. . . . .”And since everyone likes Heather the best, they just do whatever she says. She’s the most popular girl in our class, mom.”
. . . . .Anna shares this fact as if she’s been given a death sentence. And I realize that, yes—to her—perhaps that feels so.
. . . . .The dark ravine carved out by our twenty-three years of distance yaws wider between us. Did I ever feel such utter desolation? Ancient memories dart like bats through the hidden rooms of my thoughts. I remember the terrible trauma of two-faced friends; the inconstancy of groping boys; the endless insecurities triggered by body, and feelings, and acne, and life in general…
. . . . .In that instant, I want—I actually ache—to reach for Anna. But it is a risk that carries a price tag. Fear of yet another rejection weights my limbs like winter ice. It holds me back from melting into my daughter. Yet her pain feels so real, it’s as if another person has usurped the space between us her room. I take a deep, deciding breath and push beyond it to sit down beside her on her bed. Then I stretch out my arms.
. . . . .”Come here,” I say gently, not believing for an instant she will. “Let me hold you, my love. I’m right here.”
. . . . .With a tiny cry, she dives for my arms and then folds herself, pelican-like, until she nestles against me. I pull her face to my chest with tenderness and slowly stroke her hair, planting gentle, butterfly kisses along the entire crest of her scalp. Strange to realize she no longer fits me as snugly as she once did, but her scent remains the same. I would know my own daughter anywhere just by that scent.
. . . . .Time unravels. The chasm between us dissolves of its own accord. With sudden insight, I realize in that moment my that daughter isn’t ready to become a woman quite just yet. She needs me still, if only for these small moments. A wavering smile tilts the corners of my mouth once again as I relax and allow myself this victory.
. . . . .In this moment, at least, I succeeded in loving Anna.
. . . . .


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Eileen Workman spent sixteen years working in the financial service industry, as Vice President of Investments with Smith Barney. The author of Sacred Economics: The Currency of Life (2011) and Raindrops of Love For A Thirsty World (2017) she is currently working on Cultivating Grace, a book about using love to guide one’s actions through the world. She lives in N. California with her husband, novelist Dave Workman.

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A Test Post

Testing out this new section, here. So far it looks like it’s working. I mean, if you’re seeing it, it must be working, right? Or maybe I’m the only one seeing it. But there’s no one here to ask…I’m so lonely.

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Dialogue. (Part 8:) When dialogue doesn’t work

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Writing Great Dialogue (Part 8)
When dialogue doesn’t work.

By now you’re probably aware that I love dialogue. I love its texture, its allure and ambiance, it subliminal mood enhancement (e.g.; the squeal of joy, the cry of alarm, the subtle whisper.) Both the impeccably placed, “I love you more than life itself, my darling Rosette,” and “You’re dead to me, Alfredo,” work exceptionally well on my tender psyche. I love the spoken word’s ability to fully explain—or subliminally alter—a character’s mood or emotion, or to more completely develop a character’s true nature. I love its ability to turn the plot on a dime. For instance:

…..“I love you more than life itself, my darling Rosette. You are the most beautiful, intelligent, wonderful woman I’ve ever—” Pierre paused, his attention suddenly shifting beyond Rosette’s beautiful, intelligent, wonderful shoulder. “Say, isn’t that Mssr. LeBeaux’s missing Rembrandt hanging over your fireplace?”

Meaning that, unlike omniscient narration—where the writer often may need pages of careful planning and a deft hand to shift momentum or to redirect a story’s direction—by merely interrupting a character’s dialogue (in mid-word if appropriate) a writer can provide instant redirection. Or misdirection, should necessity require. In a line or two, dialogue can provide a cliff hanger, spill a secret and/or reveal essential plot momentum. Dialogue is an essential tool with 1,001 uses.

I’m easily goose-bumped when confronting great witty or passionate or nuanced dialogue. So, yeah—me and dialogue, we’re tight. Simpatico. We’re cerebral dream lovers. Fantasy friends. If dialogue was mud and I were a pig… Well, you get the idea.

After spilling countless buckets of digital ink extolling the virtues of dialogue, I’m here to reveal dialogue’s seedy underbelly, its subversive or toxic presence in any novel. It’s a tool, after all. And one doesn’t hammer nails with a hacksaw. Because, yes, misguided dialogue can cause writers a world of hurt.

Here, then, are those areas where I believe dialogue (or prolonged use of dialogue) may not be your best bet. Six scenarios where I’d advise against using dialogue are:

1. Using dialogue as an alternative for action.

…..“Look at that volcano, Avignon! Have you ever seen such a magnificent eruption in your entire life? Look at all that smoke. Look at all that belching fire. Look at the village burning! Isn’t it breathtaking!”

As a reader, I don’t want to be informed via dialogue about an important visual. If you’re writing about any sort of dramatic incident or event—a passionate kiss, a sinking ship, an erupting volcano?—realize that readers want to live those moments, as close to the action as possible. We want to experience the earth trembling, the heat of the spouting lava, the yearning or the terror or the joy. I want Avignon, and the reader, to be right up there on the side of the mountain, smelling the sulfur fumes and watching the lava flowing dangerously near. So show me the volcano, don’t simply tell me second hand. Show me the battle. Or the love. Or the brain-sucking zombies. As a reader, I want to feel, smell, taste and observe every crucial detail for myself.

Sure, sometimes dialogue can be necessary to prime a potential plot, and that’s okay. Consider (early in Act I, perhaps) this sort of spoken set-up:

…..“Doug’s grandfather was a Marine on Okinawa during the war,” Ben said. “He saw his share of Japanese soldiers charging at him with fixed bayonets. His best friend, Walter, was killed right in front of his eyes. According to Doug’s gran’pappy, three days before Walter died, he found this map.” Ben stared down at the tattered parchment lying on the table between them.
…..“See that little red X in the middle, that’s Sui Gushiku,” Ben continued. “Shuri Castle, it’s called today. The place was destroyed during the war, and rebuilt as a school. But Doug’s grandfather told him a hundred times that Walter swore he’d discovered some sort of secret tunnel. The access is hidden in a nearby forest, hard to find, and leads to an underground chamber beneath the school. That faded X is where Walter supposedly found the statue. Swears it’s solid gold. Treasure chests, too. Dozens of them. Doug thinks there’s a good chance all that loot’s still there, unknown and untouched for nearly a century. Hey, pass the rum, willya?”

So yeah, dialogue can work as a tease. As a prompt. But as a reader, I better soon be following Doug and Ben on an adventure and experience that secret chamber for myself.

2. Using long-winded or intense dialogue in the middle of action. (Refer again to Action VS. Information). Do not drop an extended dialogue in the middle of an intense action scene. If in doubt, schedule important scenes of lengthy dialogue before or after scenes of intense action.

3. Using dialogue as an RDS (Rapid Delivery System). Dialogue can be quite useful as a convenient and conversational way to hasten along all sorts of character development or plot momentum. If done well, a reader won’t even realize that they’re downloading a significant bit of data. However, one should avoid writing a summation of events using dialogue. The fictive summary—basically an abridgement or synopsis of a plot, of a scene, or of a character’s complicated rationale—becomes a passionless, tension-lacking device to quickly whisk readers from Point A to Point B. If a scene appears in your book, then it damn well deserves to be told with both passion and panache. The summary lacks these two qualities, and (imho) is often the result of lazy writing. If you’re unwilling to paint a complete picture, why should a reader be willing to spend time struggling to enjoy such a limited view? For instance:

.….“How did you manage to survive, Penelope?”
…..“It wasn’t too bad. During the summer months, when the zombie hoards were decimating most of the city, we just kicked back and watched TV. Since zombies don’t have a clue how to use elevators, my cousin Kenny and I lived in the penthouse suite of the Ritz Carlton and every week or so I’d take the express down to the basement and raid the kitchen. I mostly lived on cans of soup and, until the power died, frozen beef patties. Oh, sure, the meandering dead eventually found a way in. One of those damn zombies killed Kenny and another ate my dog’s brain, so that’s when I left. And here I am.”

Wait—they killed Kenny? They ate Spot’s brain? Sounds like a great deal was indeed happening up in the penthouse. And yet a great deal of potential drama is told in summation. Meh! As a reader, I want to know how the zombies discovered the penthouse! If Kenny or Spot were important characters in your book, I’d expect a far more dramatic and heartfelt sendoff than a brief word or two. Show us the terror. Show us Spot’s brain in all it’s delightfully gory detail.

4. Using dialogue to introduce reader-feeder. (Reader-feeder being too much information, too quickly compressed, or else information that the writer attempts to reveal to the reader via characters already well aware of that info…and thus without a logical necessity to reveal to one another.)

For instance, let’s say we’re writing a novel that centers on twin brothers, Ed and Ned, living in a small Midwestern town—and they’re desperately trying to solve their father’s murder. A few pages in, Ed turns to Ned and says, “Our murdered father’s name was Stanley.” Even if readers do not yet know this information, both brothers obviously know it, so the revelation—as written—comes across as reader feeder.

The quick fix is by tweaking the dialogue to more discreetly reveal such info:

…..“You’re Stan’s twin boys, aren’t you?”
…..“That’s right, sheriff,” Ed said. “And we’re here to ask you what you’re doing to find our father’s killer.”

Or through monologue:

…..Our dad, Stanley Jones, didn’t have an enemy in the world. And yet, somebody shot him seven times and left him in a ditch off of the Interstate. No matter how long it takes, me and my brother Ned, we intend to find out who killed him.

Or through omniscient narration:

…..Stanley Jones didn’t have an enemy in the world. Except somebody had shot the old man several times, then left his body in a ditch near Interstate 95. Ed and his brother Ned were bound and determined to discover who killed him. Or die trying.

Since creating/eradicating reader-feeder isn’t dialogue specific, and can subjectively exist on a multitude of level, see Reader-Feeder. (Coming Soon.)

5. Using dialogue as a shortcut for a writer’s fear of depth. As odd as this may sound, some writers (me among them, although I’m getting better) have a subliminal habit of forcing emotions upon characters.

Calvin told Susan that he loved her. She hugged him tightly and, through cascading tears of joy, Susan told Calvin that she loved him too.

So what’s wrong with this? I mean, in some situations this may work. (This tactic also works in short works of fiction.) But do realize that you’re distancing the reader from visualizing those emotions playing out on the page. Real emotion isn’t always easy to express, and some writers may feel that a simple “I love you,” cuts through all that sticky red tape of oogy emotions. But consider a simple line, such as:

Calvin brought Susan a small vase of flowers from the garden that morning, the same way he’d brought her fresh flowers every morning for the last twenty-five years.

If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is. But by depicting random acts of love in this manner you’re allowing readers to gradually—and more fully—comprehend the depths of Calvin’s affection. A writer can conceivably pen a brilliant love story without ever uttering the words “I love you.” It’s the old show, don’t tell theory of novel writing.

In certain situations, there’s nothing wrong with: Calvin told Susan that he loved her Should circumstances dictate, using a more passive narration may create a mood that better fits your intentions. But realize that this sort of faux dialogue typically distances the reader from the immediacy and  passion of the moment. And, after 457 pages of gradually building foreplay in a smoldering, epochal love story, this:

He told her that he loved her.

…ain’t nearly as mind-blowingly fulfilling as:

“I love you more than life itself, Rosette.”

Trust me.

6. Using dialogue instead of monologue. Basically, when a character speaks, that’s dialogue. When a character has a private thought, that’s monologue. Obviously, when a character’s alone on a page, that character will seldom speak aloud—I mean, why bother?—and will resort to a thought bubble to pass along information to readers.

I shouldn’t really be doing this, Irene mused, cautiously reaching for the glowing door handle.

Sure, there are times a character may actually speak aloud when alone—but use this trait sparingly. (Characters who routine mumble to themselves may seem a bit…strange, perhaps?) But monologue is no less important than dialogue in a story, and if you’re writing in First Person voice, monologue may actually become your favored approach to communicating with the reader. Some developing writers will attempt to find another character to fit into a scene, simply to force a dialogue whenever communication is necessary. I’m not sure why. A writer should never be off-put by a character’s personal thoughts. Nor is it likely that a character won’t have private thoughts—even in scenes crowded with people. Depicting characters using inner thought (basically, a tool that allows a character to speak directly to readers) is, imho, an integral part of character development. (Also refer to: Dialogue vs. Monologue.).

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