Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Key to Finishing A Novel

I've written many novels--some awful, some pretty good, I think. Five have been published, but I think I'm writing my best work now (though an author always thinks this. Let's be honest we have a love/hate relationship with our work. We write a note about what to get at the grocery store and we're really pleased with a turn of phrase about apples and we think to ourselves--that is one great note--really very nice. But then we look at it latter and we think to ourselves--well, it could have been better if only, if only). Still I've finished many novels.


By not thinking about writing a novel, not thinking about all I have to do to complete the daunting and ridiculously difficult task of finishing a novel and then somehow revising it into something that not only makes sense but that is a great story with interesting characters told with beautiful language in a unique and powerful way. SEE the problem? These kinds of expectations are deadly to a writer's finishing a draft of the novel. So, yes, it's important to have low expectations for the first draft. That's helpful. But what is essential, in my mind, is that no matter how much you think about different aspects of the whole novel, when you sit down to write you just think about writing a scene and then writing another scene and then another. A novel is made up mostly of scenes. Think of it in those terms to keep pushing forward.

For me, personally, I keep trying to come back to my characters and what they want and what gets in the way. So as I'm writing, I'm thinking about situations that will force my character to act--physically, emotionally, intellectually---to overcome the threat or difficulty in that situation and move on to the goal of getting what he/she wants/needs. I do think of other situations sometimes that might develop aspects of the story or theme--again always coming back to doing this through my characters. Still, in my humble opinion, it all begins with scenes and keeping your focus on scenes and not on the major task of finishing a whole novel. Just think of moving forward, bit by bit. In a few months or a year, you'll have a draft. Then revise.

The key to finishing a novel is not thinking about finishing a novel while you're writing your first draft. Think about your story and characters in scenes that keep building toward an ending. You may, at first, only see this as a vague destination in the distance. That's fine. Trust your instincts. Keep pushing on.

Or so I think today.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

nothing to say, no skill in saying it

I have nothing to say and no skill in saying it--which is something I remember (not exact quote) reading John Steinbeck writing in a letter.  I recently heard Joyce Carol Oates expressing a similar worry--at least how uninspired the work seemed-- when talking about trying to start something new. AND SO I AM a little lifted by knowing that these great writers, and many other writers, when facing the blank page, even though they've faced it many times before, have the same doubts I have. Each time.

SO, fellow writers, PUSH ON.

Though the winds be fierce
The waves hard and cold
The land far away
The night dark

Write through the crap you will write. It's the only way to get past the  clumsy and downright ugly approximations of what your work will one day be. You have to have faith that you will find the right words and the lightning to guide you. It will likely take many drafts. PUSH ON. PUSH ON.

BON VOYAGE fellow travelers.

Friday, January 26, 2018

A little Writing Advice 101

You need to learn some things. Live, read, watch, think, feel and more.

 Then you need to learn writing skills--fiction writing skills. How to use language. How to create and develop characters. Create real emotion. Create conflict. Setting. Dialogue. Storytelling. There are so many skills that need to be learned that are particular to writing fiction.

And then you need to be able to execute these skills--which takes practice and time. A lot of time. A lot of failure and learning from that failure. At least it takes most of us a lot of time. There are exceptions.

You need to be able to communicate your own unique way of seeing into your writing. So important. When I pick up a book and something about it feels different and I'm attracted to that difference, I'm in heaven as a reader. I'm excited to read on, and I don't want to stop.

You need to develop your imagination.

You need to be bold and take chances.

And the rest is up to the gods-- but if you do all these things you at least put yourself in a place where you might find success--whatever that might mean to you.

Or so I think today.

Friday, November 24, 2017

My One Rule for Writing a Novel

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." --Somerset Maugham.


But today I think that there is only one rule for writing a novel. Fortunately, I know what it is.

In your face, Somerset.

Easy. Like looking at a mountain from a distance and imagining yourself climbing right up to the top, looking down on the world.

And hard as actually climbing up to the very top. 

Because once you get to the base of the mountain, the entrance to its wilderness,  in other words once you get up close, the landscape changes into something very different. And then the real effort sets in like cold weather, and the imagined stroll becomes a marathon in a maze on a mountain, a long-distance climb through all kinds of terrain, at least half of it in the dark.

Fucking hard, in other words. Sorry.

So here is the one rule. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.

Each specific work will take a specific struggle to get to the top. Keep learning as much as you can about how you write and what you want to write and the many aspects of craft that can sometimes teach you short-cuts on your long climb.

And most likely you won't be entirely satisfied with your climb even once you're done. You'll have reservations; you'll wonder if you might have done better going left when you went right way back near the beginning of your ascent. Alas, it's the nature of writing fiction. We can never be perfect. 

But it's a lot of fun. The struggle gives me great satisfaction.

So you have to keep going and you have to finish and you have to rewrite and when you've rewritten and rewritten you have to start again on something new and it doesn't get easier and that's what is both good and bad about it. Keeps it interesting anyway. 

One rule.

Keep going.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Love me a two-word sentence

I like spare writing. I try to write spare. I love to read spare. For a while now, writers have been loading their sentences with clauses and long descriptions. That's the fashion. There seems to be this swing in fashion between minimalists and maximalists, so I suppose my preference will come back.

In celebration of the two word sentence--

Clowns scream.
Dogs shine.
Moon howls
Birds fall.
Shit happens.

Sharks come.
Diana watches.
Sharks come.
Robert swimming.
They fought
He admitted
Made mistake.
Night passed
He drank
Made foolish
Admitted fucking
Diana's sister.
Diana cried.
She screamed.
She howled.
He said
Shit happens.
She watches
Stone silent
Sharks come.
Sharks here.
Robert screams.
Red sea.
Shit happens.

OK--just playing--and some of these aren't true sentences, I know, I know;  but I'm serious about my love of sentences without the clutter of many clauses, lengthy diversions, and the twenty word descriptions where three might do. I prefer my sentences clear as a  mountain stream or the starry sky of a country night. I'm trying.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

How do you start a story?

There are many ways to start a story, of course. There are many ways to do all the things you have to do to write good fiction. But my way is I start with a character and situation. I try to make, inherent in that character and situation, a conflict and the kernel of what the story might be about. Then I build my story from there.

Alas, I think it's easy to confuse a cool setting or even an interesting character with a STORY. When one of my students says my story is about ancient Rome and there's this really cool dragon in it and some mythical creatures and I've got this character named Sid. He's funny. You'll really love it.

I think, I want to.

I say, Great. But what's it about?

I just told you.

Not really.

It's about ancient Rome.

You told me about setting and you mentioned character. What's it about?


This can go on for a long time. Sometimes the student gets it and sometimes they don't. A cool setting is not a story. That can be a great part of the story. The setting can be fertile ground for the conflict needed to build story. By itself though, not so much. Not at all, really.

Story is more than setting. It's more than a building a character. It's the movement, the progression of character and plot within a design. It's about making the right choices--which conflicts to focus on for example--because you have a clear sense of character and plot movement. Obviously there are many other aspects of writing that need to work, too--great language, dialogue, voice, as mentioned-setting, etc...but this idea of story and its development is crucial.Whether you're an outliner or discovery writer, working on this sense of progression and design can be crucial to finding your way in your novel.

For me, starting with a character and situation,  and building from it helps me find my way.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

How you begin & How you develop the Beginning--a strategy

•How to begin
Character in a situation…and the situation must have potential for CONFLICT
A boy and a girl from warring families fall in love. (this may have been done once or twice)
A boy’s father dies and he suspects it’s murder—worse that his uncle is involved and maybe his mother.
A policeman owns ten cats and comes home one night and they’re all gone.

A sea captain becomes obsessed with finding and killing a large sea mammal.
HOWEVER YOU SEE IT—the character’s conflict WITH self, another character, society, natural world, supernatural world, technology drives the story, develops characters, creates progression