Friday, July 31, 2009

Be There

Here’s my “be there” take. I think that this is something every writer struggles with nearly every time he/she writes. You have to be there in the scene you’re writing. You have to write it from the inside out and not the outside in.

You may be the kind of writer who makes charts for your characters, outlines, writes diary entries, makes maps and timelines, does a ton of research. Maybe you just write intuitively. Doesn’t matter. Writers have different ways of getting into manuscripts. Robert Olen Butler does a ton of prewriting. My friend Cynthia Leitich Smith writes a first draft and throws it away and starts fresh. Most of us write very rough first drafts, and the only way we get through them at all is to keep telling ourselves they’re just a rough, rough sketch. It will get better.

Still, when you’re actually writing you have to find your way to the place that allows you to be your characters and your characters’ world. You have to see and feel and experience their world with them. If you can get there, you have a better chance of choosing the right words. Your characters will be more likely to do the things they’re meant to do within the context of the universe you’re creating, and your plot will develop in a way that grows out of the characters and their situation. You’ll make fewer wrong turns and bad choices. Conversely, if you find yourself forcing your characters to do things you’re often going down the wrong path. You’re outside the story instead of inside.

Maybe it’s a little like acting. Of course the actor has to know the movie, learn her lines, be directed in scenes, work with other actors. But when it comes to acting, to actually making the character come alive, they have to be that character, be in that character’s skin or they won’t be convincing.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Secret Agent

I am a writer. You are a writer. I am a secret agent. You are a secret agent.

So when friends come over for dinner or we go out to dinner or we go out for some other reason, out where there are other live bipeds doing live biped things, we are carrying with us a world of secrets. Whether you drink your martinis stirred or shaken or whether you just drink beer from a tap, 007 has nothing on you.

I mean today, today my character discovered something essential about the world and tried to communicate it to others. A powerful man realized this would ruin the hold of a small group of powerful men on the world. He decided to make my character disappear. That’s right, disappear in the way Soprano or one of his minions make people disappear.
Some friends who came over for dinner asked what I’d been up to. I could have said discovering amazing, essential secrets in the world and murder and the prevention of murder, but I feared this might make them uncomfortable.

“Just writing,” I said.

They asked the obligatory question. “What are you working on?”

But I can’t tell. I’m a secret agent. You can’t tell your secrets in casual conversation. They sound dumb. Also talking about secrets, such as what you’re writing before you’ve finished, sometimes makes them disappear. The Writing Gods are always listening. So I either have to remain silent or make something up. “A Podiatrists convention,” I might say to throw them off.

Naturally, they begin to talk of other things when I say I’m not sure yet. Real jobs with real people. Selling, buying, doing. I simply have to nod and smile and pretend that their working lives are more interesting than mine. I have to pretend that all I did all day was sit on my butt and stare out my window and type a word here and there between weighty sighs. It’s part of being a secret agent.

But the truth? My job is a whole lot more interesting than theirs. My job is fascinating.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bad Things to Good People

Sometimes bad things happen to good people and that is one of my grievances against the one running things in this universe. But we fiction writers need conflict and drama, and we need bad things to happen to our characters, even the good ones. It’s a bad deal for them. Certainly it is not fair. But if we don’t let bad things happen for the good of the story, we deprive our story of tension and depth.

We have to let our characters go through whatever they have to go through. We can’t turn away at crucial moments because we want to make things easier for them or we don’t want to face the hard things they need to face.

This can be as painful for us as for them. I’ve read some work in manuscript, written some myself, where the author loves his characters so much he/she lessens the bad thing that is happening in the story or the effect of the bad thing. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. It’s natural to want to help. We’ve got the power, after all; it’s one place we can really make things right.

We can’t.

Alas, we must be brutal. Maybe things will work out in the end but our characters need to go through what they need to go through to get there.

I’m sorry.

So now that I write this I have to wonder if my grievance against the one in charge of the universe might be misplaced. Does he/she have to let these things happen? Will the story be weakened if he/she doesn’t?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Rule of John

John Gardner is one of the kings of writing about writing. He had a lot to say. He also wrote several very good novels. Two of my favorites are told by monsters, one is Freddy’s Book and the other is Grendal. You’ve got to love a story from a monster’s POV. They are certainly underrepresented in fiction.

“Good writers may ‘tell’ almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings. One may tell the reader that the character went to a private school…or one may tell the reader that the character hates spaghetti; but with rare exceptions the characters’ feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events—action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting. Detail is the lifeblood of fiction” John Gardner.

Thank you Mr. Gardner.

Notice he says “good writers may tell”—you still have to find a way to make your telling interesting.
Notice “rare exceptions” because sometimes you will break even John Gardner’s rules. This may happen more frequently when writing humorous scenes and you describe feelings for a laugh. But these and other exceptions only prove the Rule of John.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tomorrow is Another Day

Crap. Crap. Crap. I write crap. I write crap in the beginning and I write crap at the end and then I fill the middle with crap. There is crap in every moment of starring at the blank page and then pretending to have something to say. I don’t have anything to say. I don’t have any grace in saying nothing either. I don’t know my characters. Hello strangers. Crap to you. I don’t know my setting. Crappy rooms and crappy lawns and crappy car. I don’t have a story or themes. I have—yes you guessed it—crap

Some days are like this.

Some days are like a storm beating against your small and delicate craft. You are on a rough sea. Some would say, but not me because I am not so crude, that you are on a sea of rough crap. What can you do? Batten down the hatches, stay inside, and ride it out. In the immortal words of Scarlett O’Hara, a kiss-off to the rise and fall of civilization and the daily struggle, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Friday, July 10, 2009

personal and peculiar

Idiosyncratic. Writing. It is personal and peculiar. I’m talking about how one learns to write and the process one finally settles into when writing. I’m talking about what one’s subjects end up being, the themes that appear again and again in the work, the writer’s style and the voices in his or her fiction. I’m talking about the whole thing.

And so any advice about writing can only be of use if what’s given fits into your peculiar way of writing. I’ve gotten a lot of advice about writing over the years and only through trial and error have I learned what helps and what doesn’t. I’m still learning, of course. It’s slow, painful, and, I think, unavoidable.

This personal nature of learning how to write and what methods help you get to your best writer self isn’t surprising given how personal writing is. We’re spilling our guts out on the page, exposing the idiosyncrasies of our personalities, broadcasting our worldviews. Why would we do such things? We have to. That’s pretty much it; we have to.

Monday, July 6, 2009


I just read Carol Lynch Williams’ novel THE CHOSEN ONE, which I couldn’t put down; I thought it was a very good novel. And it’s a huge success (lots of buzz, great reviews, looks to be selling very well). I googled Ms. Williams to learn more about her. Turns out she is an author who published several novels in the nineties and then couldn’t get her novels published. She went through what she called a “dry” spell. It lasted many years. Something like five or six. So here’s a woman who had published several books and suddenly found herself unable to get her work published. She struggled. She went back to school and got an MFA. Eventually, after what must have seemed like an eternity to her, she did publish two novels, THE CHOSEN ONE and another, and she is having a big success. I’m happy for her. But her story does illustrate the ups and downs of the business of writing. There are many other examples of this. Take one of my own instructors at Vermont College, Bret Lott. Wrote many literary novels that were all published and then he, too, couldn’t get his novels published. He went through a “dry” spell, too. After some years, he did get something published. Then, out of the blue, Oprah selected a novel he’d written eight years before, one that was out of print, called Jewel, for her book club. Hello big bucks. Hello lots of readers. You just never know what will happen in Publishing World. There are probably many reasons why some books sell and some books don’t; the problem is no one knows what most of them are.

If you measure success by the market you will most likely not feel you are successful for a number of reasons besides the most obvious I’ve raised here: market unpredictability. LIKE, for example, human craziness: a book of yours sells well; you want your next book to sell even better and expectations go up—your expectations, your publishers etc…Will you feel successful it that next book doesn’t do better, a lot better?

I consider myself a successful writer. Not because I’ve had big success in fame or fortune. Uh, no. Not even close. Sold a few books, won a few awards, but no fame, no fortune. But I am successful, nevertheless, because I’ve found something I love to do and I’m able to do it. That is rare.

Writing and the struggle to write well and the moments of writing well, of even transcendence, these are what I consider the real and tangible rewards of writing. If you fight through the difficult moments in a novel and you struggle and sweat and take care of all the necessary details you will come to moments when your novel seems to practically be writing itself, moments of transcendence, wonderful moments. These moments far exceed anything you can get from the world in the way of praise or financial reward. That’s why I write. (Of course I want my fiction to break a reader’s heart and cause them to laugh out loud, but those are things I strive for in the work and not rewards.)

Anyway, sell your work. Market it. Do whatever you can to get readers to read it, but don’t forget the reason you write in the first place. That’s all I’m saying. The ways of the market are inscrutable. Whatever happens in terms of sales and recognition, if you remember the love of the process and creation, you won’t be pulled under by disappointments in the publishing world.

Most of us are not in control of much when it comes to our writing career but we are in control of what we value, how we see our lives as writers.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

sheepdog and writing

My sheepdog reminded me of something the other day. His comments are subtle in the way of a Tibetan monk, one grown wise with meditation. He doesn’t actually talk to me, of course, because that would mean I was, well, insane. No. But he does communicate.

I was reading my manuscript out loud and he, his name is Merlin, fell asleep. Merlin is not a quiet sleeper. He snores like a chainsaw. He made it hard to read.

I stroked my chin and contemplated the meaning of those booming breaths, his closed eyes, his outstretched paws. It was revealed to me. I saw. Yes, he was reminding me of one of the cardinal rules about writing. Do not be boring. When you’re revising, remember that there is a reader (most likely not a wise sheepdog or a Tibetan monk, but still) and that you want, no you need, that reader to keep turning the page. It might seem obvious but it’s easy to forget that one aspect of writing is to entertain. Whatever other literary heights you hope to scale, you’d better make sure your work has the virtue of being interesting or all will be for naught.

Great writers can get away with anything, but the rest of us have to be careful about self-indulgent rambles. Long asides or lengthy internal monologues can often be boring, too. What you really have to watch out for is weak selectivity. Don’t throw everything you’ve got into the story. You will be like someone at a party who tells you a long, long story about their summer vacation, unselectively giving useless detail after useless detail. They will have you yawning before they’ve hit the midway point.