Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bad Writing Advice: write what you know

If we could only write what we know there would be no Harry Potter, no One Hundred Years of Solitude, no Red Badge of Courage. So many great novels would have never been written because the writer tried to stay on the narrow road of his own experience. Don't write what you know. Write what you can imagine. OK, you can write what you know--sure. BUT you don't have to.

I do think this advice has some truth in it. You have to be emotionally engaged in what you write and you have to find experiences in your own life that will help you be emotionally engaged. These experiences might come from actual life but they can also come from things you've read  or watched in a movies or over-heard at a party. Whatever you use, it is only raw material. For me, at some point, imagination will transform these kernels of experience into something very different, something that fits in the story.

Write what you know is, for some of us, like wearing a straight-jacket. We might as well be coloring by number. Our characters and our worlds won't breathe. There will be no life. Write what you want: What you know, what you can imagine, what you over-hear, read, see, whatever gets your work done.

Or so I think today.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Here's a link to a post I wrote on why character is not plot. I'm thinking about plot a lot lately because I struggle with it so much and because I see other writers struggle with it so much. You have to be able to do a lot of things to get novels published and plot is one of them. But plot was hardly mentioned at all in any of the writing classes I took in college. I think part of that was most of the teachers didn't understand it and part of it was they thought it didn't belong in a discussion of "serious" fiction. But look at the best books. They're good stories first. All the other pleasures come out of that. There are a few that are primarily about other things, like language, but these are the exception. Most good and great novels are good stories first.
 Here's some thoughts on plot and character:

http://www.adventuresinyapublishing.com/2015/05/character-is-not-plot-by-brian-yansky.html

Also, a new video for my novel, UTOPIA, IOWA. Thanks for watching.


 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Why do they do what they do?

Sometimes I think a very large part of writing is figuring out my characters' motivations. Why do my characters do what they do? Yes, it has to do with what they want and who and what stops them from getting what they want. And it also has to do with how they see themselves and how that changes when they get involved in the plot.

Being true to the motivation for all characters--even villains who, naturally, see themselves as the hero of their story-- can take you a long way down the narrative path.

But this motivation question  is not just about the big events.  Every scene, every gesture, every conversation and silence, has motivation in it and can, if done right, reveal character. Every little thing done by every character has to be accounted for. And when you have main characters who are on stage in a scene and act in ways that feel inauthentic, it is usually the unfortunate failure of motivation that is behind their inauthenticity.

Why do my characters do what they do in both small and large ways? I try to keep coming back to this question. A lot of discovering and revealing the secrets of character lies in motivation.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The number one thing that a novelist has to have is...

Novelists need a lot of things to write well. They need some talent with language and story. They need to have read a lot to learn the structures of fiction. They need to study and understand all the elements of craft-- like characterization, plot, setting, language, show and tell, voice, POV and on and on. They need practice, lots and lots of practice. BUT the number one thing they need, in my humble opinion, is a passion for writing. They don't have to love to write all the time--good god no-- but they need to be passionate about their writing. And here's why--the writers who end up publishing and making a life, whether it pays all the bills or not, out of writing are those who continue to write and try all kinds of ways to get better.

I fully admit I have a love/hate relationship with writing. I love it much more than hate it but there are a few frustrating moments when I do hate it. But I am always passionate about it and it is this passion for writing (not publishing which is a different beast all together) that sustains me. I've met a lot of talented writers, particularly in graduate school (MFA in Writing, yep) who are not writing now and have published very little. The praise a person gets in school isn't going to sustain him/her as a writer once out and the teacher and student audience is gone and the larger one not yet materialized. What sustains a writer is that passion, that learned love of the act of writing.  Honestly, it takes most writers years and years to start writing well. What you have to do as a new writer is just keep writing and finishing (VERY important to your development is finishing work so you know what it's like to write an ending) your manuscripts. If you focus on what you love, write what you love, then you will feed that thing that I think is most important--a passion for writing, which means you will do it whether you get the pay or praise of the outside world.

Novelists do need many things (including luck) to get published but what sustains writers, I think, what keeps them going and writing the next manuscript and the next is passion. A little talent and a lot of passion will push a writer to keep writing and learning and those things make many things possible. You have to write and finish work to give yourself a chance to write something you've always wanted to write. The passion keeps you writing and the writing, finishing work, gives you hope and that's a fundamental part of the writing life.

Or so I think today.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Here's a link to an interview I did and also a giveaway of free hardback copies of Utopia, Iowa at this site. I have several other interviews coming up about writing that will be on the web. One is about Merlin and his effect on my writing and on  drinking coffee, and one is on writing and reading and one on process. Also, I have a few book events coming up: I will be at the North Texas Teen Book Festival on March 7,  teach a class for WLT on Plot in Character Driven Fiction on April 4 and be on a SCBWI panel on process on April 11 and at TLA  in Austin on April 16, 17.

http://www.adventuresinyapublishing.com/2015/02/brian-yansky-author-of-utopia-iowa-on.html



Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Road to Utopia, Iowa, Was Paved With Rejection



Utopia, Iowa, my YA novel, is being published by Candlewick Press today (FEB 10) and that’s a most excellent thing. I’m very grateful. But it almost didn’t happen. That is to say Utopia, Iowa’s road to publication was not a smooth superhighway. It was more like a road I drove in rural Mexico one summer not long after I graduated from high school, one that was an obstacle course of potholes and cracked pavement and that eventually went from poorly paved to not paved at all, then to mud, and then ended in what appeared to be a cow pasture. My choices were hang with the cows or go back and try to find another road. I like cows but…

How many rejections did Utopia, Iowa, get? I could probably ask my amazing agent for an exact number, but I’ll guess in the neighborhood of fifteen, including one from the publisher who ultimately accepted and published it (though not the same editor). And also--an important detail- the version she accepted was not that same version that had been rejected.

We’ve all seen the lists of novels that were rejected numerous times and ultimately became huge bestsellers and/or literary classics. To name a few…

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone--at least 11 rejections. (Bazillion copies sold)
Lord of the Flies: 20 rejections (15 million+ copies sold) Classic
A Wrinkle in Time: 26 rejections. (millions sold) Classic

I don’t know how many of these manuscripts, if any, were rewritten during or after rejections. I have read that J.D.Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was rewritten after many, many rejections and only then accepted by a publisher.

If you enjoy these kinds of lists here’s a long one at this site. http://www.literaryrejections.com/best-sellers-initially-rejected/

Obviously, no one knows for sure what people will buy—so there’s that. But also, since there are a lot of critically acclaimed novels and even classics on the list I’ve linked to, it’s fair to say that experienced editors and publishers may also be wrong about the quality of a novel.

So there’s that.

But what I’d like to focus on is I wrote a manuscript that was the best I could write at the time and that was handily rejected. Eventually, we had to admit that it wasn’t going to sell. I left it in my documents and moved on. I wrote another novel and that one was accepted. And then I wrote another and that one was accepted, too.

But I never entirely forgot that manuscript I’d left behind. Something about it, even after years, still interested me. Maybe part of that interest was that it was set in Iowa, the state I grew up in and hadn’t been back to for many, many years. But I also think I felt a connection to it that I never entirely broke free of. So I pulled the manuscript up and read through it. I still liked parts, but I saw a big problem in the manuscript that I hadn’t seen before. There were two stories and they were competing with each other—not working together. I thought about this problem for a day. Did I really want to go back to the manuscript again? It was going to take a lot of work and a lot of time and I could quite possibly end up in the same place—that damn cow pasture. Ultimately, the answer for me was yes. Part of the yes was that foolish stubborn steak so many writers have that serves us for both good and ill, but part of it was that I thought I could fix the story, that I could make it much better. It was worth the gamble.

So I tried.

And that version of Utopia, Iowa, sold on its first submission and made me very happy. I don’t want to say we should never give up on our manuscripts. Most writers have a few they were wise to give up on. However, I do want to say that if you have a manuscript buried in your documents folder that you couldn’t publish, maybe one that came close to being published or one you still feel connected to in some way, it’s worth taking a look at it again. Maybe the time away will give you the distance you need to see it more clearly. You never know. Writing, like publishing, is seldom a straight road.


Two minute version of Utopia, Iowa—in case you’re looking for a fast read.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Writing And Not Thinking


I've written on writing in the moment before but I want to add something about my process here.

One thing that was important for me to learn is that writing fiction is juggling many things at once and not thinking about any of them while you’re in the act of writing. There are just so many areas of concern: voice, character, plot, setting, language, and on and on. If we think about them while we’re writing, there’s a good chance we’ll freeze up or go into a kind of stiff, forced writing, or maybe make the wrong choices. And the wrong choices can be deadly in a novel. The wrong choices can lead you to other wrong choices and then you’re halfway through the novel and you’re thinking, HOW THE F**K DID I GET HERE? WHAT AM I DOING HERE? THIS ISN’T MY BEAUTIFUL NOVEL. THESE AREN’T MY BEAUTIFUL CHARACTERS (and before you know it you’re in a Talking Heads song—sorry, off topic). 

So--you can't think--much--about writing while you're writing. You can think all around it, of course. When you're driving your car (this, of course, does raise safety concerns but we all must make sacrifices for our art), taking a shower, walking the dog (one of my favorites). I'm constantly turning over aspects of what I'm working on when I'm not actually working but the writing itself, in my opinion, should be as much in the moment of the story as possible.

So yes--writing in the moment is important for making the right choices and discovering connections between plot and character.

But the thinking that goes on around the writing process is important too.  Lately, I've been trying to order this thinking a bit more by writing it out. I'm not yet ready to call it an outline but it is brainstorming in a more orderly way.  I've always been a discovery writer so this is a bit new for me. More later on how this works for me--for now I just want to point out that I think that you can be a believer in discovery writing (finding your way by writing it out) AND mapping aspects of story and character in order to guide some of these discoveries.