Sunday, February 28, 2010

Taking Chances

Sometimes you just have to tell the story you have to tell. It may be way out here, like having a dog for a narrator (Who’s going to publish that?) or a story about a spider or one told by a dead girl.

You have to be brave. It’s hard. It’s very hard to write something that you know is pretty far out there. When I began my ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES novel about aliens landing and taking over the world and enslaving everyone, I thought—really? Am I really going to try to write this? It’s so, well, weird. Who will publish it? You don’t want to have these thoughts. You just want to write, but most novels take a year or more to finish. It’s a chunk of time and your life. But ultimately we’re writers and that’s what we do and part of that is taking chances, following your passion. I suppose this is the writer’s way of following Joseph Campbell’s advice: follow your bliss.

Every time you write it’s a kind of leap of faith. You have to be brave. If your story is a strange one and it’s going to be told in a strange way, it may be harder to sell to a publisher. That’s true. But who knows what will happen then? An author named Stein did write a book from a dog’s point of view called THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN. Great novel. Great reviews. Bestseller. And of course Charlotte’s Web is a great novel about a spider and ELSEWHERE and THE LOVELY BONES are novels with POV narrators who are dead girls. You just never know. You have to write what you have to write. You have to be brave.

Monday, February 22, 2010

writing action

Why do sheepdogs run in their sleep? When my sheepdog runs in his sleep it can only mean that he is trying to send me some message about writing. But that message is hidden in the mists of my own limited understanding. What could the meaning of his twitching paws be? It comes to me. He’s speaking to one of the great problems of writing action scenes. The desire to speed things up.

When you’re writing an action scene you can write as quickly as you like but what happens on the page should move slowly. Slow down time. It will be hard because your adrenaline gets going as you try to make the scene exciting and as you participate through your characters. But I think time works a little differently in action scenes. These scenes work best when you realize that you heighten the tention in such a scene by altering time. Let the character in danger be in danger longer than is actually possible by making the time non-specific.

SIMPLISTIC EXAMPLE--For example, you have BOY and GIRL in danger. Snidely Whiplash has tied them to a train track and the train is coming. Dudley Do-Right is battling Snidely to free BOY and GIRL. They are in a fight to the death, though Dudley Do-Right does keep asking Snidely Whiplash to say uncle and throw down his weapon because he’s a, you know, Canadian Mountie and quite polite and nice. You describe the fight, different aspects of it, while the train moves ever closer. If this were reality you might only have a few lines of the fight before the train actually runs over BOY and GIRL. But you can, simply by not mentioning time, get away with extending it through description of the fight scene and the things they say to each other. It won’t be noticed if you’re crafty about it and don’t extend it to the ridiculous as is the case in some action movies.

Action scenes, whether a fight on school grounds or a chase scene etc..etc.. can be effective as long as they work to push along story or add to character, too.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


“How do I know what I think until I see what I say.” E.M. Forster once said.

Right. I’ve got to see it. Sometimes I have an idea, occasionally. Most of them aren’t very good but every once in a while I’ll get one I like. But the idea is always out of focus. The way for me to get it into focus is to write. I don’t know what the thought is, how it fits beside other thoughts, until the act of writing allows me to try to make sense of it.

When we’re in the final stages of a manuscript we need to be analytical but at first we have to get words, lots of words, on paper. So for me the drafting stage (those usually three misshapen and embarrassing attempts at a true draft) should rely on intuition more. I don’t mean that you don’t worry, think, consider, struggle with choices, use all the skills you have, but that you do your best to get to that altered state writing requires and BE THERE in the manuscript. What happens should flow from your experiencing the world through your characters, a more sensual than intellectual experience. Again, be there in the scene and your being there will help you know what to put in and what to leave out and where to go with the story.

Probably as you revise the manuscript, after drafting, you’ll need to be more analytical about the story. But you will still need to enter that altered state in places and BE THERE in order to make the scenes work once you’ve decided they belong. So these revisions, however many they are (I remember reading an interview with Hemingway where he said he rewrote the ending of one of his novels thirty times), will be some combination of analysis in both big picture and details and working locally in that altered, intuitive state. If you’re like me, you’ll probably rewrite certain parts five or ten times and others only a few. At any rate, you’ll go over the whole manuscript many, many times for language etc..

When you’re doing the final runs, that’s when you need to be analytical. You need to rely more on assessment rather than intuition though you’ll still, no doubt, be fiddling with the language. I always am. Making good sentences is a burden and joy.

Or so I think today.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Self-deception can be good for a writer, particularly early in his or her career. I’m not saying I’m so good I don’t need it now. I probably do, particularly in order to get first drafts done. But it's particulalry helpful when you’re getting started writing. Most everyone writes badly at first. I wrote a lot of crap, a lot of terrible and just not-very-good stories. But I didn’t know it at the time. I suppose they weren’t completely awful. Not like the deluded American Idol terrible (self-deception in small doses= good; total self-delusion like some of those American Idol singers=bad). Still, my writing was not good. But I thought it was pretty good when I was writing it, and this self-deception helped me keep writing. Even if, once I finished a manuscript and a few months passed, I realized it wasn't good, I had that wonderful feeling while creating my story. By that point I’d be on to the next story, trying to figure out how to make it a better piece of work.

Writers aren’t like musicians.A lot of musicians can be very good when they're very young. Most writers who’ve published have written a bad novel or two or three or four before they write a good novel. Of course there are exceptions. There are writers who write a great first novel. Still, it’s not so bad to struggle a while. If your first novel isn’t immediately picked up by a publisher, you should know you’re in the majority. You should know that it does not mean you won't publish.

We have to work to get better. It takes a lot of work and effort and desire to make it past writing badly. But the good feeling of creating is there even when we’re not writing well; you should allow yourself to appreciate whatever you write. Then try to make it better. The main thing, the one thing you have to do as a writer, is keep writing. You will only get where you want to go as a writer if you don’t let yourself be stopped by yourself or anyone else. It’s the old boxer story. You can be knocked down five, ten, fifteen times in a fight. It can look very bad for you. It will look very bad for you. But what you have to do is get up one more time than you were knocked down. That’s all.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

advance story/character

Before I end my short run of structure posts I have to say one thing: I don’t think structure is the most important element of a good novel. Characterization and language, a unique voice, a story that resonates because of the ideas and emotions that resonate in it—these are what make for the kind of writing that can’t be put down. BUT there are a lot of talented writers out there, a lot of writers who can write well; I think one thing that even very good writers struggle with is structure. I know, for a long time, it was one of the things that kept me from being published.

Back to this idea that was succinctly stated by Kurt Vonnegut, “Every sentence must do one of two things, either reveal character or advance the plot.”

Everyone struggles with this.

I don’t know about every sentence but I believe every chapter has to do this.

At some point, after the first few drafts, it’s sometimes helpful to summarize what you’ve got in each chapter to clearly see what each chapter accomplishes. This is what my editor did on my last book and it was helpful: Write a sentence or two that marks what happens in the chapter or what the chapter is about. For example, the summary of my first chapter in ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVIENCES is the following: The aliens conquer Earth in ten seconds; Jesse and everyone who survives are enslaved by the aliens. That’s what the first chapter is about, generally. That gives none of the tone (it’s oddly funny and sad, I hope) or character development or many other things that happen in the chapter, but it summarizes the main action and what that chapter is about. If you do that for each chapter of your novel it does help you see what you’ve got and maybe some problem areas. Don’t write more than a few sentences though.

Once you’ve done this, you have to honestly evaluate each chapter. Learn the thread of your story. Look at each chapter and ask what it adds. You may need to cut chapters, add them, move them around. I did. Ultimately, structure is about getting the right things in the right places in the story.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

structure 4

When you’re thinking about structure, when you’ve written your first drafts and you’re revising and trying to figure out the structure of your novel, I think you have to look at each chapter and ask yourself how it advances the story or develops the character.

Sure we can all find ways to convince ourselves to keep scenes or even chapters that we think are cool or have good writing in them even when we know, deep down, they don’t fit. I think, in fact, keeping these can sometimes even take writers down the wrong path, the one away from where their novel is going or should be going. The writer loses his sense of direction and the reader starts to feel less confident the writer knows where he or she is going. This can be fatal.

Everything is important: language, characterization, voice and so on, but a weakness in terms of structure has got to be one of the major problems. Be critical of your scenes and chapters. Be analytical at some point—really look to make sure every scene fits.