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 cafĂ© 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.