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 cafĂ© 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.