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.