Sunday, December 27, 2009

real fiction

“But that really happened,” the writer says. “That’s exactly the way it really happened.”

He’s saying this in response to criticism from his critique group that the scene doesn’t seem real.

“It is real,” he says as if he’s throwing down a trump card. “That scene is as real as it gets.”

Au contraire. Real life does not always make real fiction.

I think this is one of the big mistakes of beginning writers. Often times faithfully rendering something that really happened in life will lead the writer down the wrong path. Either he’ll put in the wrong details or too many details or the whole scene will not fit with the rest of the novel.

You can’t trust real life when it comes to fiction. Of course you use your life and things that have happened to you and things you’ve felt in your fiction, but you always have to remember that you’re writing a story. YOU ARE WRITING A STORY. Sometimes that’s hard to remember because we want our stories to have verisimilitude. But I believe we can only achieve that by carefully picking and choosing details that serve the character and story. You can’t be true to real life and do that. You have to be true to your story.

Or so I think today.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Real fiction


So now I’m trying to figure out what is going on in this scene I’ve been writing. For inspiration, I go for a walk. Maybe it isn’t inspiration I’m looking for exactly so much as clarity.

So I walk down my street, which parallels a little lake that’s more like a river, taking my sheepdog and lab along for company. (Dogs are great company on walks and make your walk seem purposeful. You’re not just wandering around aimlessly, obsessing on your writing, you’re walking the dogs. )

Anyway, there we are and I’m thinking and not thinking, feeling the warm sun on my face, looking out over the water, when one of my characters appears next to me, a deep frown on his handsome face. His steps match mine.

“Yo, dude, you got it all wrong.”

“Got what all wrong?”


“What’s all wrong?”

“I’m a lot better looking for one thing, and I sure as hell am smarter. You make me sound like a barking idiot.”

Both dogs look at him when he says barking and then look around hopefully. (It’s a word they know. I use it around the house frequently as in, “Quit barking.”)

“You let your jealousy get the best of you,” I say. “Jealousy will do that. It will take over everything.”

“It’s not jealousy. I do what’s right for everyone. Can’t they see he’s a fake? He’s just a fake.”

“What I don’t get is how you could think what you’re doing will solve your problem.”

“My problem? Everyone else has the frickin problem. I don’t have a problem. They just can’t see. That’s the problem. And I’m going to make them see. I’m going to force them to understand.”

“Understand what?”

“That I’m the one. Not him. I’m the one.”

“The one what?”

“That they should love.”

And then I see. Yes. That’s it. That’s what he wants and needs. That's where the desperation comes from. I start to ask him more, but some neighbors pass and I think it best to pretend I’m one of them, you know not insanely talking to a fictional character, so I say “Hi” and “Nice day.” My dogs, witness to the whole act, look back at me, raising imaginary dog eyebrows. But then, being dogs, forget about me when they smell something on the grass, mostly likely another dog’s pee. What self-respecting dog wouldn’t greedily sniff in such circumstances? It’s what makes the same walk every day always different to them.

And so, a day in the life, or a few minutes in the life, of a writer and his dogs.

I think a lot of writers solve problems in their stories when they're doing mindless tasks like walking or taking a shower or brushing their teeth. If you're involved in your manuscript, you're going to constantly struggle with parts of it that bother you when you do other things. Still, I wish I could control it more. It's a little freaky to drive somewhere and realize when you get there that you don't actually remember driving because you've been thinking about whether your character should really go to that party or stay home.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

character invention

I’m not someone who builds a character by listing his or her favorite colors, where he or she went to school, what his or her favorite books, food, movies, kind of jeans and tennis-shoes are. Some authors do this and they have a lot of success building a character in this way. A lot of writing books promote it. A lot of teachers promote it.

I’m not arguing against it. It works for some people. If it works for you, great. It doesn’t help me though. It doesn’t make my characters richer. It makes me self-conscious and it tends to make me force things.

I believe in creating a character in an organic way without any preconceived notions about what he/she might become as he/she evolves in a manuscript. I don’t want to know or think about his or her favorite color or ice cream. I want to be fluid and unencumbered by facts, trivial or otherwise, until they arrive in the natural order of invention. That is as the story evolves, the characters evolve. Another explanation might just be that I’m lazy, but while this is no doubt true, you have to find what works for you and go with that. I do, as I’m working on the manuscript, write little notes about characters. That is, I test out things I learn about characters. Is J. really against potbelly pigs in the house? Why? But something about filling out forms on characters before I write or in the very early stages has a bureaucratic feel. When I’m revising in later stages I might do a character analysis or listing, but not early on.

Probably it just goes back to my notion that writing a novel starts with getting into a place that allows you to live in the work and make the right choices about your story. Within this context you will discover all kinds of things about your characters and what they want and what they fear and maybe, even, what their favorite color is.

Monday, December 14, 2009

What We Do

I’ve watched a lot of football over the past few weeks so I’m thinking about football.

Football players wreck their bodies and put them through incredible punishment for what? They usually begin playing as children and those with talent are encouraged early. By middle—school they’re playing on a team. Most of them, if they don’t get hurt, play in high school. But only a few will get scholarships to play in college and only a very few will get scholarships at major universities. Out of those, a tiny fraction will be legally paid, will make it to the pros. The chances, I’m told, of playing pro football are one in a million. And those few who make it will play for an average of three years. Almost all players will be finished as a player by the time they’re in their early thirties. (Say yahoo, authors, because we can write until taking our final breaths).

So what about this? Why do they do it? For some there’s the possibility of the escape from poverty, the lure of girls, the chance for fame and riches. Everyone has a mix of motives for pursuing something that takes singular dedication and sacrifice. But I think most of them do it for one main reason and it’s the same reason writers write and actors act and painters paint. Love. How many people love what they do? A big part of who we are is what we do, and yet most people don’t love what they do. It’s worth a lot of struggle and heartache and pain, physical or other, to find the thing you love to do and do it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Be Bold

I’m working on a new draft now, and I’m struggling some days. When you first start a new draft, it’s all possibility. It’s great because you can go anywhere. But after thirty pages it’s not so great. Why? Because you can go anywhere.

All these possibilities, all these choices—that’s what a first draft is full of. It seems like every few pages offer some new crossroads. If you think about it too much, you’ll freeze at those places. But let’s say everything goes well and you don’t freeze; you’ll still have a lot of difficult choices. Going down one road always means you won’t be going down another. What interesting things might you have come to if you had gone down the other? Alas, one of the unfortunate limitations of being a writer and human is you’ll never know.

But writing a novel is all about choices and many of those choices, in a first draft, are intuitive. Of course you can always backtrack a bit if you feel you really did go down a wrong road. Sometimes you should. Sometimes though you should just force yourself on. I’m working on a first draft now while I let something set for four or five weeks. I found myself writing a scene that doesn’t seem to fit. I considered going back but then I decided just to push on.

I think sometimes you just have to go with that first instinct, you have to be bold. Maybe you’ll throw the scene out in revision, but writing it may provide you with some benefits you can’t see. Maybe it will help you make necessary connections in your story or be some piece of back-story that illuminates a character for you at a critical moment. Everything that goes into a first draft will have to be scrutinized in later drafts, but I think it’s better to push on many times and just be aware that you worried about the scene a little in the first draft. It’s better to make those bold choices and see where they take you.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Using Your Life

One of the great things about writing is that nothing in life is ever wasted. It can all be recycled in a story: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

For example, you get in a fight with your wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend. Well, it’s never pleasant, but regardless of the outcome you will have something to bury and use later. Not that you will recreate the fight exactly, but it will be buried in your compost pile (every writer has one) and when (perhaps years later) you’re writing a scene where lovers argue you will dig up moments from that old argument. Of course these moments will need to be changed to fit the story, but that will happen automatically as long as you’re true to the moment in the story. So—nothing is wasted.

IMPORTANT TIP: Never bring this fact up during or after an argument with a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse. Even though, when you’ve lost one of those silly arguments, you may feel like saying, “You may think you’ve won, but I’m just putting all this away to use later when I’m working on a novel. Ha.”

Bad idea.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Seeing Your Mistakes

John Steinbeck, when writing The Grapes of Wrath, knew he was onto something. He was confident how good the novel was. Sometimes. At other times he despaired about his ability to make the novel good. He wrote that if he had enough time and enough patience and enough enough he might make the novel special, he might make it really good, but he doubted himself.

Writers can’t see their own work clearly sometimes. Even the great ones. Sometimes a writer won’t see how good her work is. Other times writers can’t see where they’re failing. Sometimes writers get stuck making the same mistakes over and over because of this.

It’s okay to love what you’ve written while you’re writing. It’s one of the satisfactions of our difficult art and craft. And you need to love it to keep up the struggle. But at some point, when you’ve taken the manuscript as far as you can, you have to put it in a drawer and not go back to it until you can get past unconditional love (Maybe a month later, maybe longer. By the way, this is a good time to have others read it and give you their thoughts, too. )

When you come back to the manuscript, you have to force yourself to look at it critically and admit its failings and do your best to make them better. It’s a humiliating experience in some ways. But it’s also exhilarating because you can see that you did some things well and you did some things poorly and you have the chance to make the parts that don’t work, work better. There are two major stages to writing a novel—there’s the time where you are living the work, dreaming it onto the blank page and then reworking that dream so it is clearer and clearer. Then there’s the more analytical stage where you assess as clearly as possible what works and what doesn't work. It’s a struggle of a different kind, this later stage of revision.

Or so I think today.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


No I’m not referring to overindulgence of alcoholic beverages. Here I’m referring to the idea that every manuscript does not become a published book even from writers who have published books and even from famous writers who have published books. I was listening to an interview with David Almond the other day and he talked about manuscripts that he wrote, one he spent a year on, that he had to eventually toss. The whole manuscript. A whole year. That’s extreme but it happens. And it will make you a little crazy. More common is you’ll write fifty or sixty pages and decide the manuscript just isn’t working and have to abandon it. That will make you a little crazy, too.

Almond did say in that interview that throwing away that manuscript he’d labored over freed him. He started writing another manuscript and was able to write a good draft in only a few months. That novel was published.

It’s hard but I don’t think the work you do that isn’t published is wasted. Sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes good manuscripts go bad. Even John Updike, the great stylist, someone whose sentences seem as effortless as bird songs, said he threw away a lot of pages. If a manuscript wasn’t working, he didn’t hesitate to toss it and start something else. It’s all about finding your way to the stories you can tell.

It's messy. It's a messy, messy business, this art and craft of writing.

To paraphrase the great actress, Betty Davis, who said, "Getting old isn't for sissies," writing isn't for sissies.

Friday, November 20, 2009

When Characters Take Over

Most writers feel this, I think. I certainly do. I want to feel it. I strive to feel it. I’m talking about when your characters seem to take over and make things happen. Now, I’m not going to argue the authenticity of the feeling. It's happened to me so I believe it. Maybe it is just finding the place, the altered state, which allows you to access that part of the brain that makes intuitive leaps. Or maybe you’re connecting to a higher power, any higher power. I don’t know.

Whatever. Your characters come to life. They take you places you hadn’t thought of or intended to go and these places are the right places for your story. Some of the truest writing comes from these moments because it’s coming from inside the world of the characters and story. You aren’t forcing it.

Of course sometimes you have to force it. Sometimes you have to work things out and plan a scene and re-imagine something that’s happened that seems wrong. You do all the work, you struggle and fight, and sometimes all of that allows you to get to that moment when the characters seem to take over.

Let them. Let go.

Enjoy it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Vonnegut advice

Kurt Vonnegut was one of my favorite writers when I was a teenager and he still is. He’s profound, profane, sardonic, ironic, satiric, sometimes bleak, sometimes plain goofy, almost always interesting. The link below is to a video that lasts all of one minute and twenty-eight seconds. In that time he tells you how to write a good short story. Most of what he says can be applied to writing a novel though.

All of it is good advice, but here’s a line that jumped out at me the last time I stopped by to listen to Mr. Vonnegut. “Every sentence must do one of two things, either reveal character or advance the action.”

It’s hard to stay focused sometimes when writing a novel. You can’t help but get tired and lazy now and then. Vonnegut’s advice is a good reminder of how language can’t be independent of story. A sentence that doesn’t do anything to deepen character or push the story forward, even a beautiful one, generally weakens the work. A lot of those sentences and the story may falter.

But there’s a lot more advice loaded into Vonnegut’s minute and twenty-eight second talk.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

read and write

Read and write. That’s how novelists get better. They read a lot of fiction and they write fiction. They try to improve their writing. They admit they have weaknesses, and they try to improve those, and they try to do what they do well better. Did I mention, they read.

I’ve had would-be writers, more than once, say to me, without embarrassment, that they want to be a writer but don’t read.

“Why would you want to be a writer?” I ask because, well, I’d like to know.

“Well,” they sputter,” I-I just do. I just—you know--I want to write.”

Now they haven’t given the most ridiculous answer, which would be they want to be famous and make tons of money and never wear anything but pajamas like Hugh Heffner. Still, I don’t get it.

“But why?”

“I don’t know, I have something to say.”

Okay, I get that. I do. But if a person doesn’t read fiction, they shouldn’t expect anyone else to read their fiction. I’m not talking about cosmic justice here, though, come to think of it, there is that. It’s just that the writer won’t have a clue about even the basics of fiction writing unless they read. I don’t know one writer who doesn’t love to read.

Writing is like learning to be a musician or a baseball player. It’s an art and a skill. You learn by doing and by learning from teachers and your teachers are the writers who have written works that move you.

Or so I think today.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Be The Dog

Along with a sheepdog, I have a lab. They’re different. Our lab is an amazing alarm system. She barks whenever anyone or anything gets close to our yard. There’s only one problem. She barks whenever anyone or anything gets close to our yard. The sheepdog occasionally joins in, but his barks are always half-hearted. He looks admiringly at the lab but feels no compulsion to adopt her philosophy of protection. The sheepdog’s practical view is that no one is any kind of threat unless they enter the house. People near the yard don’t count. In other words, there’s absolutely no need to interrupt a good nap for intruders that might never make it to the door.

How does this relate to writing? It doesn’t. I was at my desk doing what writers do, staring out the window, and the lab barked and the sheepdog woke briefly from his nap, that is opened his eyes, perhaps listened just enough to know no doors were being opened, and went back to sleep. The lab kept barking. Or maybe it does--sort of.

Dogs have personalities based on genetics and environment just like the rest of us. You’ve got to see into your character to write about the character. You’ve got to see through your characters eyes. Every character deserves your attention to this one obvious but sometimes overlooked truth to creating character: they see the world their own way. A villain doesn’t usually see himself as a villain. He’s misunderstood. He’s misused. He wants things, and he’s going to get them at any cost, but he deserves these things doesn’t he and isn’t everyone that way deep down? Well, no, but to him the answer is yes. Each character, if you’re in the character, sees himself or herself as the hero of his or her own story. My universe is not your universe. My character’s universe must be his or hers--distinct. Chekhov was a master at character. He wrote a story once from a dog’s point of view and it was great because he stayed in that POV. He didn’t make the dog human or see the dog through human eyes. He was the dog. Be the dog. Be your characters. Experience the world through your characters’ eyes and that will give them life.

Or so I think today.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Still thinking about process: the draft to revision process of writing a novel.

Desire is the compass in the wilderness of novel writing.

I think so. When I’m writing a novel, a first and second draft especially, this is what I keep in mind to keep myself from getting lost: What do my characters want? What does my story want? What gets in the way of what my characters and story want? This helps me develop character, plot, and theme.

I still wander, but I don't wander off as far as I did in some of the past manuscripts I've had to give up on. Still, I'm on my third draft of my WIP; the first two drafts were vague. Still, each gave me something. The first gave me characters and situations and some sense of story. In the second, all of that was refined and the real plot and themes emerged. Only now in draft three do I feel like I’ve got a story and characters, and now I get to focus on making it all more vivid and connected. This isn’t to say I haven’t been working on sentences and language all along; of course I have. But now I can focus on that even more, too.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Talk about revision-- I’m constantly revising my own opinions about the writing process. That’s kind of what this blog is for. It’s a place for me to think out loud. Maybe I should have called it that: thinking out loud. So here’s some more thinking out loud.

In the comments to last post someone wrote in a way that made me think they worried about having too much mess in a first draft, they worried about getting lost in the mess. That is definitely always a concern. I have to say that too much mess isn’t good. If your manuscript keeps breaking off into big lumpy sections and has no unifying forces holding it together, then you could end up with a draft that can’t be made to fit no matter how many times you revise it. Not good, of course.

I still think you must allow yourself to be messy in a first draft, but at the same time keep working to make it fit together. This will be imperfect and have places where you wander, but just working on it should help you avoid getting lost. I think that’s the main point. The manuscript will be vastly imperfect, but as long as it isn’t hopelessly fractured that’s okay.

Some things that might help: keep trying to figure out what characters want, keep trying to BE THERE in scenes, be open to changing directions, be open to back-tracking twenty or thirty pages if you feel like you’ve gone down a wrong path. Stay flexible.

I do think one of the easiest ways to get lost in a manuscript is to lose sight of a character’s problem or conflict (desire). Stories do have to be about something. If my character, Bubba, is a great guy except when eats peaches then I’ve got the start to a character and story. If Bubba, when he eats peaches, always gets violent and starts a fight with the biggest guy he can find then that’s a bit of development. If Bubba despises fighting but loves peaches so much he finds it hard to give them up, then I’ve got conflict. Bubba’s life is being destroyed by peaches. What can he do to save himself? Will his fetching new neighbor who makes apple pies be of any help? (Now you might be thinking to yourself, "Ah, that old story--the old guy who loves peaches too much meets the girl next store who bakes apple pies-- story." Well, yeah, but since most of us have somewhat similar experiences many of the real differences in our stories come from the way we tell them--our specific and unique way of seeing.) Characters need to desire something in a manuscript and things need to get in the way of that desire.

Anyway, messy in order to finish a draft is good. A manuscript that goes in so many directions it has no center, no heart, is one that might be a Humpty Dumpty situation: all the king’s horses and all the king’s men…

Thursday, October 22, 2009

first drafts

Still thinking about revision, which I brought up last post, but now I’m thinking about how one gets to that place where revision starts.

Michelangelo was very eloquent about his approach to sculpting. He said, “I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.” Oh, yes, very nice indeed. Very pretty. Lucky bunch, those sculptors. And here’s one genius sculptor who could turn a phrase, too. But we who actually need to use words to make our work don’t have the luxury of a big slab of marble. We can’t set anything free of some material because it’s up to us to make our material, our silly little marks on paper. Only then can we start thinking about freeing any angels within.

For most writers (there are exceptions, of course) this means creating a wreck of a first draft, one that goes all over the place and sometimes no place at all and stalls and speeds and takes a dozen wrong turns. One that is fuzzy about what it’s about and often confused about characters’ motivations and is basically a MESS. But a writer needs that mess to begin the process of finding the story in there, the true story. So, painful as it may be, writers have to allow themselves to make their mess and lie in it too. It’s the only way to get to the chances revisions offer.

I know some writers who get stuck on the first fifty pages of a manuscript, revising those again and again. They never get beyond that mysterious fiftieth page. So that’s one worry of revising before you write the entire manuscript, but I have another. Revision of those early pages can’t be clear because the writer doesn’t see the whole story, can’t really revise wisely without a sense of where the story will end up. I say a sense because, of course, there will be changes, big changes, but a sense is important so the scenes of the novel all lead toward the general area where the story should end. In revision, of course, we hope everything gets more definite, more clear.

So here’s my point. Writers have to give themselves permission to write a lousy first draft, full of all the things we don’t want to see in our writing, in order to get that raw material. That’s when we have the chance to find the true story within.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

missed opportunities

There are a lot of missed opportunities in new manuscripts. We all have these in real life, too. Something we wished we’d said, the pithy remark that puts the rude or arrogant person in his or her place. Or maybe we miss the chance to say something helpful to someone or to reveal something of ourselves to someone we love.

The good thing about fiction is a missed opportunity isn’t really missed. We get do-overs all the time. We get the gift of revision.

A lot of times I think we sense when a scene in a manuscript isn’t all it could be. We know there’s a soft spot where more needs to be revealed or said or done. Pay attention to this feeling. Listen to it. Each scene has to be as perfect as we can make it, and it has to be important or it shouldn’t be in the manuscript anyway. Make it important. Don’t give yourself a pass by thinking it’s pretty good. When revising, that’s the time to really look closely at scenes and ask the tough questions about the scene’s worth. If you’re sure it belongs, then the next thing to look at is how does it change the characters and have you made the characters clearly show these changes to the reader. If not, then that’s a missed opportunity. Try to find a way to make the scene important to the story.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Writers are spies.

What do most spies do? They gather information. They observe.

We’re like that. I mean, not 007 or even Austin Powers. We don’t have a gun (most of us) or the cool gadgets. We don’t have arch villain enemies though if you’ve ever had a negative review you certainly could imagine the writer of that review sharing brunch with Dr. Evil. Nevertheless, much of being a good writer comes from paying attention to details.

Occasionally this may involve ease dropping. What can I say? It’s all in the line of duty. Mostly though paying attention involves, well, paying attention. How does someone speak? What gestures do they use? How do they communicate fear, tension, anger, happiness, and amusement? It’s all out there in the world and we go out into it and eventually we report back. Usually it takes some time for what we observe to compost in that great pile of experience and observation in our mind, but out it will come eventually as we sit in front of our computers remembering and imagining our stories.

Friday, October 9, 2009

loud characters

I was dreaming last night about my WIP, which woke me, which made me think about my dream, which had my characters in it talking about something that had nothing to do with my manuscript. But then that got me thinking about a scene and anyone who has insomnia from time to time knows that once you start thinking in that way sleep is not coming back.

I blame it on the characters.

Our creations can be quite vocal sometimes. You can hear them grumbling and moaning and laughing. I’m just glad they can’t talk to us directly, or I would get no sleep at all. I can imagine many conversations:

“Dude, are you going to leave me there with this guy talking about Forest Gump? Just kill me.”

Or someone else would complain about how they’re not getting enough page time. Or someone else would complain about how I’d made him or her less kind, more kind, weaker, less intelligent, mean, not mean enough.

Characters are demanding. A writer has a hard time getting them out of his mind when they start making noise. They’re the life of the story. I suppose they have the right.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

driving in the dark

There’s a point in a first draft—I’m there now—when everything feels like confusion to me. I don’t know where I came from or where I’m going to. The landscape looks wrong; nothing is where it’s supposed to be. The word roads are behind me. I made them and can still see them. But as I look back they seem all twisted; they have that big-city ,cloverleaf look. They seem without purpose. I’m the maker of gibberish roads. And the road up ahead? Gone. Once I knew where I was going but now it all looks the same up there, empty and vast.

It would be easy to quit. It would be easy to say it is just wrong, all the work I’ve done is just wrong. Easy to open my file, put the curser on Edit, click select all, tap delete. Goodbye. Hello clean page. So full of possibilities, so neat. A novel, like life, is messy. A first draft is really messy. I’ve been to this emotional place before in a first draft. I know I have to keep going. I have to just see that little bit of road ahead of me and go on and hope, believe, that the road will keep extending as I move forward.

I remember E.L. Doctrow saying something similar about writing once. He described writing a novel like traveling across the country on a dark highway. He had the car's headlights and could see a few feet in front of him but all around him was dark. All he had was that tiny light and a vague sense of where he was heading. I guess it's like that for most writers. Faith is a big part of writing a novel.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Being Stubborn

One way a writer’s stubbornness pays off is when you’re a young writer and your parents tell you that being a writer is a ridiculous idea. How will you live? (My father’s line was that he wasn’t supporting me until social security took over.) That’s a good question and you will have to find an answer to it some day. You may be one of the few who make a living off writing, but most likely you’ll need the help of another job or a tolerant, well-paid spouse or a trust fund or some other, preferably legal, means of support.

BUT—you will need to be stubborn, regardless, when family members and sometimes even lovers/husbands/wives tell you that your dream will ruin your life. As with many dreams there is an element of the ridiculous to it. Also there’s that hubris. Who do you think you are anyway? Why can’t you just be satisfied with a normal job and life(whatever that is)? Who would want to be a writer anyway? Be real. Grow up.

Contrary to movie and TV show notions of reality most people do not have a dream that fills their life. They have desires. Every single one of us has those and we have them all the time. But the big dream is rare. If you have it, you will not be understood by most people. Sometimes you will not be understood by those who love you. Probably you won’t even really understand it yourself. SO you have to be stubborn. I prefer a polite, quiet totally inflexible stubborness, but the loud, rude kind certainly has a dramatic quality. Whatever. Be stubborn. Write.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Writing in the Zone

I believe a lot of elements of writing can be taught. An inexperienced writer who finds the right teacher, right for him or her I mean, can learn much about things like characterization, plot, setting, novel landscape, pacing, even to a certain extent paragraphing and sentences. Putting it all together in a unique and powerful way, though, is something the writer has to find himself. And so the reason writing programs give a lot of people MFAs who never publish or who publish very little. I got an MFA after teaching myself writing by reading (to me the most the single most important thing besides writing itself a writer can do to improve) and writing. Did the MFA help my writing? Yes. Is getting an MFA for everybody? No. Some it won’t help. Some don’t need it. But for me it helped me focus on my weaknesses and helped me know myself as a writer better.

When I was learning the martial art Taekwondo I realized the importance of breaking down moves. We’d work on part of a kick and then another part and then another part. It would take a long time to put it all together and be able to do that kick right and then even longer to be able to use the kick in combination with other movements. It would take still longer to be effective sparring with the move. Some people never could get there. They knew what they should do but they couldn’t make their bodies do it. Or they couldn’t let their bodies do it. Some people could do it fairly well. Only a few were really good.

Writing is more difficult. Still, I think writing’s moves can be analyzed in ways and by isolating each aspect of writing that aspect can be improved. Whether the writer does this herself or in a program or with other writers doesn’t really matter. Whatever works.

But are there some parts of writing that can’t be taught? Sure. The writer’s unique way of looking at the world. The writer’s style, too, can’t really be taught though it can be developed. The writer’s particular feel for language is, I think, like personality. And there’s that one very magical part to writing (like with Taekwondo); everything has to work together without the writer consciously forcing it to do so (of course when rewriting the writer will be very conscious about his choices). The writer has to find that unconscious place where he becomes the story. Everything slips away. The room. His fingers moving on the keyboard. Words like setting, plot, language, characters mean nothing to him. He is what he’s writing.

That’s the place a writer needs to get. A kind of forgetting. When athletes talk about being in the zone that’s where they are. Everything the writer has ever learned is there without being there. It’s a kind of magic.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Writing Life

The writing life is a funny life. We are trying to create life on the page which requires that we remove ourselves from life and sit in a room alone and stare at a blank screen. We spend much of our life making sentences.

Sometimes I do wonder about that. We excuse ourselves from many things in the real world in order to try to make things live in our imaginary worlds. Sometimes it gives us a good distance, but it can be a dangerous one, too. We see something happen or are involved in something and even though we’re engaged, some part of us is imagining how whatever is happening might be worked into a story somewhere down the road. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. It is what it is, I suppose, though to be honest I don’t know really know what that means. “It is what it is” is a phrase I keep hearing and that I use myself sometimes. It sounds good but isn’t it kind of obvious (of course it is what it is, what isn’t?) and non-descriptive? Maybe that’s its charm. But I digress.

So there you are. I think writing teaches the writer a certain detachment, which can be useful in certain situations and has to be controlled in others or it might be harmful. And all this sentence making? Long ones, short ones, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex. Round and round. You can measure a writer’s life in sentences. Good ones and ones you do over and over and never become good. Ones you can’t take back (I’m afraid I have published copies of MY ROADTRIP TO THE PRETTY GIRL CAPTIAL OF THE WORLD, my first novel, in my room where I’ve taken a pencil and rewritten sentences; I try not to look at published work but sometimes if you’re doing a talk or reading you’re forced to) and even ones you like, even ones you think, Not bad.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I’m a bit of a writing book advice junkie. I remember once reading this advice: try to get to know your characters by letting them write each other letters or emails. I think it’s a good way to get to know characters or to get to know how characters feel about a certain situation or scene in your novel.

For example, say I have two characters, Jesse and Lauren, who are attracted to one another. They kissed the night before. I might try to figure out attitudes by having them send each other a few emails.

To Jesse,
I think we need to get together and talk about what happened last night, but I should tell you ahead of time that I’m not ready for a relationship. I can’t be with you. I like you a lot. I do. But I can’t get involved with anyone right now. Lauren

To Lauren,
It was just a kiss. I didn’t say anything about a relationship. I enjoyed the kiss and all but it was just a kiss. Jesse

To Jesse,
What do you mean just a kiss? What’s that supposed to mean? Are you saying you just go around kissing girls and never mean anything by it? I didn’t take you for that kind of guy. I’m glad I found this out about you now. I really am. Lauren

To Lauren,
But you said you didn’t want a relationship. You said, “I can’t be with you.” We weren’t exactly with each other anyway. I’m just saying. It was a kiss. It was a nice kiss but just a kiss. I agree with you about the relationship. Jesse

To Jesse,
Just don’t pretend like you’re agreeing with me. This is why boys drive me crazy. They come up with boy logic. A kiss is hardly ever just a kiss. Anyone with a heart would know that. A kiss is a promise. It can be a promise anyway. That kiss of ours certainly was. Lauren

To Lauren
I don’t understand. Jesse

To Jesse,
So now you’re breaking up with me? Lauren

Sunday, September 13, 2009

writers don't waste

No doubt you’ve had your own problems with the dream world. I certainly have. I can’t control it at all. I just had a troubling dream. I was locked in a car trunk. I hate car trunks. So cramped. The smell of damp carpet. The spare gouging your back . You can't move. You can't even breathe right. The air is stale and there's not enough of it.

I don’t like small places. A trunk is a small place. No need to get in one to check this out. Take my word for it. You can’t stretch out in a trunk . You're helpless locked in there. It feels like you'll never get out.

In my dream I started screaming and kicking and punching. I wanted someone to know I was unhappy. I hoped for help. Instead, I woke up. But it got me out of the trunk so maybe that was the help I hoped for.

Dreams, like memories, can be good sources of emotional moments. If I ever put one of my characters in a trunk ( and how could I not now?), I will feel very bad. I will feel sympathy and guilt, of course. BUT maybe I will do a good job because I will remember how I felt in that trunk, and I will describe that feeling. Sorry characters, I will think, and then put them through hell. Sometimes we have to put our characters through hell.

Here’s one of the great things about writing: all memories, even the bad ones, even memories of dreams, can be stored or, if you prefer, thrown in the compost, and eventually they will be used. SO THERE NIGHTMARES. You may think you’re getting something over on me but I’m using you or I will use you. Writers don’t waste anything.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


TIRA (her wonderful blog is Time Is Running Away) graciously passed me a "Coisas Importantes" award and asked that I come up with the six most important things in my life. So, without worrying over it for weeks, and I do tend to worry over lists, here are my six.

1. All the people I love and have loved.
2. All the animals I love and have loved.
3. The ability and opportunity to write.
4. My work outside of writing, which is teaching. It’s important to me that I do a good job with students.
5. My entertainments, particularly books but also movies, music, art, and other entertainments I enjoy.
6. Living in a place I love.

And speaking about writing, here’s a little quote about writing that I got from my agent, Sara Crowe's blog (Crowe’s Nest, a blog for her clients). One of those clients is the YA writer Randy Powell, who quotes something George Saunders’s said in a Tin House interview.

“With writing, you have your eyes closed and you’re passing your hand over the stove trying to find out where the hot spots are. My thought is that you trust the hot spots. Don’t even think about anything else. Look for the place where the prose energy is high…”

I love this quote because it speaks to the great mystery we face all the time as writers. This guy has written very successfully for over twenty years, both fiction and non-fiction, but here he is talking about closing his eyes and hoping to feel hot spots. Love it. And he also manages good advice, of course. Be vigilant about prose. Try to feel when you’re going through the motions. Try to only keep the hot spots.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Write What You Want to Read

Here's one of my favorite quotes about writing. It's from J.D. Salinger's SEYMOUR, AN INTRODUCTION. Seymour is writing to his younger brother, Buddy, who is a budding (sorry) writer.

When was writing ever your profession? It's never been anything but your religion. Never. I'm a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won't be asked. You won't be asked if you were working on a wonderful. moving piece of writing when you died. You won't be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won't be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won't even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished. I'm so sure you'll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you'd remember before ever you sit down to write that you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart's choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won't even underline that. It's too important to be underlined. Oh, dare to do it, Buddy! Trust your heart. You're a deserving craftsman. It would never betray you. Good night. I'm feeling very much overexcited now, and a little dramatic, but I think I'd give almost anything on earth to see you writing a something, an anything, a story, a poem, a tree, that was really and truly after your own heart... Love, S.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

subtle but savage

Forgive me football haters.

It’s all about choices. There’s this football movie where Al Pacino, the coach, is giving his team the big motivation Talk before the game. He talks about his own wreck of a life and then he talks about how the game, like life, is decided by inches, by an inch. You move a little too slow or a little too fast, you arrive a second too soon or a second too late, and you fail. You do it all right and you have the chance for success.

Truman Capote said, “The difference between good and great is subtle but savage.” I’d say the difference between good and almost-good is the same. It’s hard to write a good story or novel. It’s very, very hard. It’s hard to see when you don’t write well. Once you learn the basics-- you know grammar, you understand character and plot and setting and you have a feel for language-- it’s all a matter of subtle choices. You make the right ones and at the end of the day (year) you have a book. You make the wrong ones and at the end of the day(year) you have a manuscript that doesn’t work. Sometimes it almost works. It’s very close. That’s a bit of a heart breaker, the almost good manuscript.

So how do you make the right choices? That’s the big question. That’s the one that has no single answer because every manuscript is different.

I do think one thing you can do to help yourself make the right choices is to struggle to be in the scene, to BE THERE and not allow yourself to force your characters to do things from the outside. Try to find that place that allows you to experience the scene with the character. That closeness will help you find your way.

Or so I think today.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


In most books on writing fiction and in many articles on the same broad topic, the use of sensory detail is advised like the public campaigns for seatbelt use or nutritionists advice to eat more fruits and vegetables. The life you save maybe your own: buckle up. Live longer and healthier by eating more fruits and vegetables. Save your manuscript from anemia and a short shelf life: use sensory details.

Okay, I’m with that. I don’t want to die because I was too stupid to buckle up. Ice cream is a fruit, right? And of course I want my manuscript to be muscular and attractive. So more sensory details. I can do that.

But one mistake I made and I think inexperienced writers make when they hear this advice is to load their manuscripts with sensory details (like loading up with free ARCS at a library convention) indiscriminately. They force in those details of taste, smell, sound, touch so as to give life but they aren’t the right details and all they do is weigh the manuscript down. The manuscript becomes lethargic. If it’s done to the extreme, the manuscript loses focus entirely and the writer gets lost in details that lead nowhere.

It’s not enough just to stuff a scene with generic sights, sounds, smells etc. They have to be ones that add to what the scene is doing, what the character is experiencing. It’s back to that CHOICE thing. You have to choose the right details. Those details should do lots of work: add to character, reveal theme, add to the setting or mood of a particular experience etc…that’s when details really involve the reader. That’s when they save lives or at least make characters and their stories come to life.

Or so I think today.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

guest blogger: my sheepdog

Brian, the writer, is at it again. Sitting there. Looking at the computer. Staring out the window. Looking at the computer. He doesn’t even see anything when he looks out the window. There are some perfectly good birds out there that certainly need chasing. Not to mention one of those mangy little squirrels hopping around the yard with impudence. He doesn’t even notice them. He doesn’t hear anything either. There’s a German Shepard barking from up the road, a woman yelling at her daughter, a motorcycle backfiring. I would love to bark at these sounds, let them and the world know I’m alive, but he’d get all upset because he’s BUSY. Right, BUSY. A dog must have more control than a human. They can make all kinds of noise and no one complains.

Nevertheless, I understand dreams. I have them myself. I dream of the old days. Once my ancestors took care of the sheep and fought the sharp teeth and claws of hungry wolves. There weren’t many sheep lost when a sheepdog was around. We were made for it.

I can see that Brian is made for what he does. In the end, doing what you’re made for makes you happy. Not every day. Not every moment. But, yes, happy. Certainly this was once true of my ancestors. We gathered the sheep together and watched over even the weakest and in the end doing what we were made to do made us happy. If I could write, that’s what I would write about, the loss of this noble profession. And perhaps the taste of fried chicken and the fat from steak and, naturally, Alpo Choice Cuts from a can.

Still, sometimes I dream of sheep though I’ve never actually seen one in real life. I dream I’m in a grassy meadow, a full moon above me and bright twinkling stars in a black sky, and somewhere far off a wolf howls. My sheep begin to shiver and make frightened sounds and I rise from where I lay and walk among them and I say, “That wolf will not get you. Not that wolf. Not that one.” And I feel them calm, feel the calm spread just as the fear was spreading a second before. Is this what it’s like I wonder? Is this why he sits at his desk all those hours?

Saturday, August 22, 2009


You have to be stubborn to be a writer. You have to be stubborn with the work itself and you have to be stubborn to keep going in the face of compelling reasons not to write at all, let alone try to make a career out of writing.

One of the first things you have to be stubborn about is rejection. Every writer deals with it. Some have fewer rejections than others, it’s true, but with rare exceptions, writers will have a unpleasantly large collection of rejections. And each rejection is, at best, a thorn that you have to pull out of your side. On a bad day a rejection will be worse; it may become the voice that says, “You’re not good enough. You’ll never be good enough.”

So you let the voice have it’s say and you try to go on and if you can’t go on right away then you do something else for a short time. But you have to shut the voice up and remind yourself that the voice is you. A rejection of a story or novel is just saying that one person on that day can’t publish your work. It’s one opinion by someone who can choose very few pieces to publish. It’s not a rejection of you was a writer; it’s a rejection of one piece you’ve written. There’s plenty more where that came from. If you’re a writer, you have or will write many works of fiction. So let me just say it again. They are not rejecting you as a writer. Only you can do that.

And they’re fricken wrong a lot of the time. Here are just a few, a very few, examples.
William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES –20 publisher rejections
JK Rowling’s first Harry book—dozens of publishers passed (they cry themselves to sleep many nights)
Heller’s CATCH 22—many rejections
Madeleine L. Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME—29 rejections
Stephen King’s first novel, CARRIE—dozens of rejections
Ursula K. Le Guin, George Orwell, William Faulkner, John LeCarre --all had rejections for great novels.

You have to be stubborn.

Monday, August 17, 2009

short story

I’m not a big Hemmingway fan. In fact, I don’t read him much anymore. He’s not someone, like Chekhov or Alice Monroe, who I read every year and every year feel a renewed sense of awe. But there is one story of Hemmingway’s I always go back to--“Hills Like White Elephants.” This story weighs in at about four or five pages. It’s short, elegant, nearly perfect. I still read that one every once in a while and feel that old awe.

Dialogue—H. is a master of suggesting deep emotions in dialogue and of revealing complex emotional entanglements between the characters through conversation.

This is the story about a man and woman who, in my reading, have been in love. The woman is pregnant. The man wants her to have a “simple operation.” They stop at a small village in the mountains to switch trains. There’s just a short time there and they have a drink in a little bar and talk about how they’ve been happy and are now unhappy. The man says they will be happy again if she has the simple operation. The woman says they will never be happy again whether she has it or not. Not much happens, in terms of action, on the surface. H. was famous for saying he wrote so that, like icebergs, one-eighth of what was really happening was in the story and the rest hidden in the cold sea. He wanted, in his writing, all that he didn’t put in to exist in a way that made the reader feel it as she read. I think this story is a near-perfect example of this.

Setting—the setting is a character here. They’re between trains, hills all around them, a small café in a station; it all suggests where this couple finds themselves emotionally. They’re in a place where the decision they’re making will change everything—or just the fact that they’re having this conversation at all may have changed everything already. When they leave nothing will be the same.

What’s left out—A lot of biography. We don't know much about the characters. For example, we don't know what work they do, where they live, much at all about their pasts. He leaves out so much so that the focus is all on this moment in their lives. Even the details of the love affair are left out, but we feel them in what they say and the way they say it. What they’ve lost and what they will never get back is all over this story . As a reader, you can't escape it.

If you want to look at a very short story that does a lot with a little check this one out.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

He Wasn't A Math Guy

Every writer is always looking for the thing that will make them a good writer. We all want the thing to come to us in a moment of inspiration and then, with the triumphant ending of a story/myth/fairytale, write happily and brilliantly ever after. But, alas, real writer life isn’t so wonderfully simple. There is no one thing that will suddenly make us infallible writers, that will make writing easy and without the inevitable difficulties every writer faces in almost every manuscript.

I was reading Nathan Bransford’s blog, an agent whose blog is full of good information, and I saw in the archives an interview with SE Hinton, the ground-breaking YA writer and also adult writer, whose first novel, The Outsider, was published when she was in her teens. It sold something like eight million copies. Surely, writing is easy for her. Au contraire. In the interview she talks about all the different methods she’s tried.

“I think I've tried every writing process there is, trying to find an easy way to write a novel. If I do find it, I'll publish it and retire. Sometimes I revise as I go. Once I used an outline. One time I thought in terms of movies and wrote scenes out of order, as they occurred to me, and stitched them together later. I wrote That Was Then, This Is Now, two pages a day and did almost no revision. I originally wrote Rumble Fish as a short story, did the novel, and threw that one away because it was too easy, and wrote it again with Rusty James as the narrator, which was not easy at all. The Outsiders was forty pages long, single-spaced, typed, in its first draft. The third draft was the one Marilyn (her agent) saw. The only thing I am sure of in my "process" is that it involves a lot of staring out the window.”

There is no one thing that will make a person write well. There is no secret, no easy way, no hidden path that you take once and know ever after. Hard work. Dedication. Imagination. Sometimes inspiration. The slow and studied acquisition of skills. Luck. Determination. Perspiration. Faulkner’s recipe for writing success was “99% perspiration, 99% inspiration, and 99% determination.” Okay, so he wasn’t a math guy, but as a writer he usually got it right. Determination and perspiration are easily two-thirds of the battle.

Writing is a journey. Every time you begin a book is a journey; therefore, every book is different and presents different challenges. Like most journeys you’re bound to get lost in places. One of the great frustrations and also one of the great satisfactions of writing is that it’s different every time.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


The Sheepdog is at it again. More non-verbal communication. He put his gigantic head on my lap while I was writing the other day. You, of course, do not know my sheepdog so let me just say he’s got a cartoon head, one much too large for his quite adequately sized body. He’s about ninety-five pounds, but that head definitely provides disproportionate poundage to the whole. Anyway, he also has round cartoonish eyes. He may, in fact, have escaped from a cartoon, but that’s another post. He stared up at me, his big head heavy on my lap, his big eyes focused.

Such a look signals, usually, a basic need. He needs out, needs food, needs a walk, needs attention. But this time I sensed something else. Naturally I looked to the manuscript on the computer screen before me because sheepdogs, at least my sheepdog, is forever being cryptic about his writing advice.

What was wrong? Of course-- not enough detail. The sheepdog had somehow, with the keen insight of sheepdogs, seen the thinness of description and physical detail in the scene I was writing. Sheepdogs are naturally gregarious and, in my opinion, a bit over the top in their moment-to-moment living. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I tend toward the other end of the spectrum. A little too understated. Perhaps in life. Definitely in fiction. So, though he exists in perpetual overstatement, his criticism in this case was right on.

Since I know I have this weakness(among others), it’s one of the things I look for when I revise. One of the ways I try to work on my weakness with physical detail is to look for places in the manuscript that seem thin. I think of these as doors I can enter and add specific detail. When I go through the manuscript I look for as many doors as I can.

But what I’m really getting at here is every writer has strengths and weaknesses and if you can discover some of your weaknesses and isolate them, then it can be helpful in revision. Sometimes I will go through a manuscript just looking for one thing.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

avoiding a filter

A practical aspect of BEING THERE in a scene is not to let a filter get in the way of your character’s experience and the reader’s experience of your character’s experience. This John Gardner quote comes VIA Janet Burroway’s excellent book WRITING FICTION: AVOID“the needless filtering of the image through some observing consciousness. The amateur writes: “Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.” Compare: “She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting.” Generally speaking—though no laws are absolute in fiction—vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as ‘she noticed’ and ‘she saw’ be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.” John Gardner

What’s so good about this advice is you can go through your manuscript and look at those “ she noticed” type phrases and the “He saw the man step toward him” instead of “The man stepped toward him” etc… and cut them, and if you do this consciously for a while, you will soon be unconsciously cutting them when you write. And here’s why I think writing can be taught—to a degree—because you can learn things like this and apply them and make your writing better. AND it will seep down into the place where writing comes from and eventually you’ll write without the phrases. We can all always learn to write better.

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.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Is coincidence a bad thing in a novel? I think not. I used to think maybe it was but I don’t anymore. That is, unless it is so absurd it makes me distrust the writer. Avoiding coincidence completely because you’re trying to make your story “real” sacrifices too many possibilities. Hey, your story ISN’T REAL. We’re making something out of nothing here. The act of writing is the act of constructing an artificial world, a world made of artifice. Coincidence sometimes serves plot. On the other hand, reality sometimes does not serve it.

I remember this workshop from grad school. Most of us in that workshop were writing stories though a few were writing novels. There was an older guy, a policeman, retired, who was writing a novel about, not coincidentally, a policeman. But there were problems. The main character just wasn’t very believable. Most everyone agreed on this point. We thought the policeman did things that seemed out of character. We thought some of the story elements didn’t fit together.

“But I was a policeman,” the writer said, finally unable to hide his irritation. “I know what it’s like to be a policeman. And that story? That actually happened. That guy in the story. He did that.”

I don’t doubt he did. I don’t doubt the author’s experience either. But the policeman in his story didn’t seem real because within the context of the story he kept doing things, saying things, and reacting in unbelievable ways. Reality let the writer down. Maybe the problems were deeper than just the writer following what really happened. Maybe there were problems in the language and the expression of motivation, too, but I know the writer was upset because he knew what he was talking about and we readers didn’t. We’d never been cops after all. I’ve been in that spot before, too. I wrote about something that happened, that I knew was true, and others said it seemed false. I secretly cursed their limitations. Why couldn’t they see what I was writing was true? But it wasn’t true just because it was based on facts. Wasn’t true for the policeman. Wasn’t true for me. If you don’t convince the reader in your fiction, through technique, skill, art, then it isn’t true to them.

Most of the time, in order to convince the reader a story is true, I have to lie. I have to create an illusion so strong that the reader feels he or she is living in that world and experiencing what the main character(s) are. I think it’s worth reminding myself of this sometimes. I manipulate characters to make a better story. Reality has to serve the story; the story shouldn’t try to serve reality.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My Fiction is Stranger than Truth

I am so tired of people saying truth is stranger than fiction. First of all I’ve read some pretty strange fiction. Try reading a little Terry Prachett or Kurt Vonnegut or Neil Gaiman etc… and then tell me truth is stranger than fiction.

But, hey, I’m a reasonable man. Let’s say that it is sometimes true that truth is stranger than fiction. I will be the first to admit and even celebrate the capacity of humans to do absurdly foolish things. Absurdly brave sometimes, absurdly everything really. I will say this: fiction is restrained by the need for believability; reality has no such constraints.

My world, the one I’m creating, has to have certain rules. If you’re writing realistic fiction those rules will generally be resistant to absurd coincidences. Naturally, absurd coincidences happen all the time in the real world, but we accept these after a bit of head shaking. If they happen in fiction we cry, “foul” and slam the book shut. Is this fair? No, I say. A thousand times no. But it’s true that we will not tolerate in our fiction what we will tolerate in our real lives or in our non-fiction. So, it seems, we hold our fiction to a higher standard of believability than our non-fiction. Go figure.

I get around this “fiction cannot be as strange as truth” problem by writing absurd fiction. I have little green men who actually do invade Earth. What are you going to do with that? If your world, the one you create, is fantastical you can of course be as strange as you want. In other words, the truth has nothing on me. In my world FICTION IS STRANGER THAN TRUTH.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

my editor and revision

So I’m revising a manuscript now with my editor. It’s my second round of editing. Heard that editors no longer edit? Heard that your manuscript won’t get the attention it once did by the acquiring editor at a publishing house because she only has time for promotion, sales, more acquisitions, and long leisurely lunches with agents and book buyers etc? Not true. At least not true for me. And not true for the many other writers I know who are published by various publishers. I was talking to a big-time, award-winning author (one of those) just the other day and she said she was on her second round of edits with her editor and hoped she’d be done after one more. Even she does edits with her editor. I find that comforting.

So here’s the secret that’s not a secret. Even experienced writers, after they have rewritten and rewritten and rewritten a manuscript, will have an editor who makes, often, very good points about how to improve the manuscript. This makes me happy. Every chance to get it right makes me happy, and if a friend or agent or editor can come up with points that improve the work I’m grateful.

This thing that we do is very, very hard. We’re making something, a whole world, a specific story in that world, out of nothing. We have vision. Oh yeah. But it’s not 20/20 and, especially in those first drafts, we are seeing our world and story as a blurry version of itself. It gets clearer and clearer but that is a long, difficult process. I’ll take any help I can get and say thank you very much.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Writing Destinations

One aspect of the journey of writing is finding what you’re supposed to write and the way you’re supposed to write it. This will evolve, of course, but finding your voices and your subjects is one part of the process. Most writers do have a few themes they explore again and again in different ways and stories.

You may write a lot of bad stories and novels learning the craft and finding your voices and subjects and themes. Alas, I have. Millions of wasted words if you want to look at it that way. I don’t. I don’t think any of them were wasted. They all took me a little further along. Now if you were to ask me along to where I could talk about learning the craft and art of writing or discovering a few things about life along the way. But I couldn’t really say where in any final destination kind of way. Writing, for me, isn’t about reaching a place; it’s about the long, arduous journey to THERE even if I can’t articulate where or what THERE is.

Faulkner said he was never completely successful when he wrote. He made some comparison between writing and climbing a mountain. He tried to climb literary mountains with each new work. But his words never took him to perfection, never took him to the very top. If they had though, he speculated, he probably would have fallen off the other side.

Writing offers wonders. You’ve got to enjoy them. Yes, finish manuscripts. You must do that, too. But once a manuscript is done, it’s like a finished experience. A memory. Good memories are nice, sure, but they aren’t like experiencing the real thing, life. And yes (and this is one of the mysteries of writing) sitting on your butt in front of a computer making things up can make you feel startlingly alive. SO, here’s my point. It’s pretty simple. Stop and smell the damn roses. Realize that the best part of being a writer is writing. When a manuscript is done and it goes off on its way to be published that’s nice, but it pales to the experience of creation.

At the risk of stating the obvious, not so different from life. Rushing from thing to thing, you miss some pretty nice moments. And where are we rushing? In the end, we all reach the same place. In the end, we have the same destination. I, for one, am in no hurry to get there.

Or so I think today.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Let’s talk character. Of course there’s tons of advice about how to come up with them, how to get to know them, how to dress them and undress them, how to move them around a room, a city, a minute, a decade. There’s the dictum carved in stone about the need for a character to experience conflict, inner and outer usually. No conflict. No story. So presumably these characters we create must have problems and must attempt to solve these problems; they must themselves be dealing inwardly and outwardly with the conflicts in their lives. So there’s all that and a lot more that has to do with character building and developing.

I’m thinking about something related but slightly different here though, about how to use character to direct plot. For me story always evolves out of character.

Kurt Vonnegut says that characters must want something. He says even if they only want a meal or a drink of water, their wanting something will keep the reader interested. John Gardner wrote also wrote about the necessity for a character to desire. But the true guru (to me) on the need for characters to need is Robert Olen Butler whose book Where They Dream spends a whole chapter detailing with the need for a character to yearn. I love that word, yearn. It feels immediate, raw, and demanding. Robert Olen Butler’s idea of how this works is that the character’s yearning will direct the character’s story. In other words, points of plot will come out of that yearning.

What I like about this is it gives you something tangible to hang onto while you try to find your way through your story. Know what your character (s) yearn for and your plot can evolve out of that yearning and what gets in the way of it. Of course you will discover different levels of yearning as you work through drafts but knowing early what your character primarily yearns for can help you discover a lot. For example, say you have a character named Bradley who loves Brigitte who loves Brittney who loves no one and never will because Bradley broke her heart when she was sixteen. How will Bradley convince Brigitte to love him? How can Brigitte get Brittney to fall for her? Is Brittney really so shutdown she is unreachable by Brigitte or maybe by Bradley? This is a situation ripe with dramatic, if soap operaish, possibilities. If you know what your characters desire you can give your characters focus. There’s also opportunity to give your story focus.

Another point I would add to the whole idea of yearning is its opposite. What do characters fear or need to avoid in your particular story and the situations it produces? This is also helpful, I think, in developing characters and story.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Writers and Wrath

Here’s a quote T.C. Boyle used in his review (NYT book review last Sunday) of John Updike’s final collection of stories. It’s from a story titled “The Full Glass”. A man approaching 80 reflects on an affair he had, as a young man, with a vibrant, brassy woman. When she dies, he thinks her death “removed a confusing presence from the world, an index to its unfulfilled potential.” To me that’s great writing. Lightning. The flash that makes you see far beyond the sentence and story.

Okay enough with the lightning. Well, maybe just one more thing. I remember watching a late-night show once where a guy who’d been struck by lighting three times was explaining how it felt. Nothing poetic about it. The talk-show host asked him if he didn’t think someone was trying to tell him something. That got a laugh but the guy, who was a golfer, shrugged the host off.

“My mother-in-law hates golf,” he said. “She thinks golfers just naturally attract the wrath of god.”

Do writers? I think writers, like other artists, need hubris to attempt the act of creation. Hubris, in Greek and Roman myths, often led to punishment of a good old-fashioned nature (those were the days) like blinding, dismemberment, being burned alive and so on. So, it’s dangerous. Writers, as a group, don’t really need a higher power to punish them though. They do a pretty good job of inflicting punishment on themselves. They drink too much. They have a high suicide rate. They spend unhealthy amounts of time starring at walls and thinking over things they’ve seen or done in an attempt to fill blank pages with symbols. It’s a strange way to spend one’s life. It can take a lot out of you.

No, I don’t think writers just naturally attract the wrath of God, but they may occasionally annoy him. I can hear him wonder aloud, “Who do they think they are anyway?” Maybe that’s part of our problem. We don’t know who we are much of the time. When we’re deep in a manuscript sometimes who we are blurs with who our characters are, and it can be a struggle to have normal conversations about the weather and the price of gas, eat spaghetti, button up shirts properly.

Anyway, the golfer was kind of a putz. I mean, come on, you’re out in an open area with a piece of metal in a violent storm and you wonder why you get struck by lighting?

Or so I think today.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Thank you Mr. Twain

I want to go back to that quote I brought up last time by Mark Twain. “The Difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening.”

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE LIGHTENING BUG AND THE LIGHTENING. That’s everything for a writer. A little bug flickering in the back yard is nice but, come on, it won’t illuminate the night. It’s definitely true, as Meredith pointed out in her comment on my last blog, that we novelists need to move our story along to get from strike of lightning to strike of lightning, other elements like story and character, for example, being just as important to a novelist as language.

Still what Mark Twain so beautifully wrote, choosing the exact right words, was, I think, a reminder we have to be vigilant with ourselves and never allow ourselves to settle for the almost right word. If through our own limitations we are unable to get the right word, well, that’s life. But if we miss our chance because we are too lazy to struggle (rewrite, rewrite, rewrite) for the right word, that’s unfortunate. The difference between success and failure in a story is sometimes slim. Too many lighting bugs can be that difference. Choosing the right words and using them at the right time in the right way is how you make the words become living people living vivid stories. That’s the big flash blowing up the sky. That’s the whip of lightning that can split a tree in two.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

lightning,lightning bugs, Twain, Madness of Art

All a writer can do is work on the various aspects of craft and write a prodigious number of words, struggling (because without the struggle the writing is as useless as recitation) to find the right words to be used in the exact right way. And the rest, as the great Henry James wrote, “is the madness of art.”

But showing up and giving honest effort, dreaming big when you can, gives the writer the opportunity to write well, the chance to be in the right place at the right time. Randall Jarrell, the poet, once compared writing poetry to standing out in the rain, hoping to be struck by lightening. Sounds a bit ominous, but you get the idea. Maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t, but if you’re never out in that rain, you will never be struck by lightning. (Another lightning quote comes to mind, this one from Mark Twain. “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Is that true or what? But I digress) Okay, Jarrell’s quote. Good for poets. They’re notorious street-corner and outdoor café loungers. But what about novelists? We’re the grunts, the worker-bees of literature. We can’t simply stand out in the rain and hope for the best; we need plot. We need to go someplace! We need to move! And you can bet a lot of our traveling will be to far away places. It will not only be soggy but treacherous and unforgiving and very, very hard. But we’ve got to do it to have that same chance at making all of our efforts lead us somewhere.

Or so I think today.

Monday, June 1, 2009

writing and canine criticism

Last week my Old English Sheepdog, Merlin, pulled some of the manuscript pages of my latest WIP from my desk and began to eat them. Merlin, like most dogs, is adept at non-verbal communication. Of course he is also, another noble trait of the canine, notoriously good-natured and non-judgmental. I wondered what could have driven him to such uncharacteristic and extreme criticism.

After I managed to wrench the somewhat chewed but readable manuscript pages out of Merlin’s toothy grip, I started to read them. A growing uneasiness began at the nape of my neck and spread and that uneasiness became queasiness and that queasiness became despair. It was, alas, all wrong. Started in the wrong place. Went on too long here and not long enough there. Most importantly the life, somehow, had been squeezed out of it and the characters moved as if they were clueless stick figures rather than living creatures.

Merlin was right.

So though I am going to write about writing in this blog, and though I’ve written a lot of words and sentences and pages and have learned, maybe, a few things that might be of some small use to beginners, the truth is no writer, on any given day, really knows more than a sheepdog happily chewing away on a manuscript. And what we know on any given day is sort of a stab at the truth. Another day we might feel differently. I should probably end everything I say about writing with—Or so I think today.

That’s a good idea.

Or so I think today.