Monday, March 29, 2010

Some Days

Like a lot of writers, some days I feel pretty good about my writing. I’m happy about it, content for little blocks of time. They always end, but they’re very nice. I walk around with a smile or I’m ready to smile very easily.Strangers seem kind. Everyone likes me immediately. Children are drawn to me. If I happen to pass a Jehovah's Witness on the street, he or she tells me I don't have to worry about going to hell. Something of my satisfaction radiates.

Other times a certain quote repeats itself relentlessly in my mind. It describes both me and my writing with cruel clarity. It’s from Shakespeare’s MACBETH.

“It is a tale told by an idiot
Full of Sound and Fury
Signifying Nothing.”

As you may imagine I walk around looking haunted because I am, well, haunted. People look the other way when I walk by them. Waiters bring my food late or give me the wrong orders, stores send me the wrong things, telemarketers call with annoying frequency, I drop things on my toe.

Some people bring their work home sometimes. Our work is always home, always wherever we are. Sometimes it’s distracting, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes irritating, sometimes depressing. It’s a great struggle. We’re lucky in that way.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

rejection of a rejection

I once heard an agent read a rejection he’d got from someone he rejected. The letter began with something like, “ Thank you so much for your rejection but I’m afraid I’m unable to use it at this time. For that reason I will have to reject your rejection. Please don’t take this personally. I receive many fine rejections every month, so I have be quite selective in the rejections I accept.” It went on for a full page like that. It was hilarious. The agent was obviously amused. Did it help the writer get a second look from the agent? Uh…no. In fact, this agent said that while he’d got a good laugh from the letter, he not only had no urge to look at the manuscript again but he would probably be wary of dealing with the writer as a client. He was worried he might be a problem.

I love the idea of responding to rejection with rejection. Who hasn’t wanted to do something like that every time they get one of those little notes? The rejection feels so personal. It is like they’re saying you’re a bad writer, but they aren’t saying you’re a bad writer. They’re just saying that a particular manuscript on a particular day didn’t make them go “wow”, didn’t make them fall in love with the manuscript. (Really, these days, editors, and even agents in most cases, need to fall in love with a manuscript to take it on).

We are writers and we are going to be rejected. We have to learn to live with that unpleasant fact and move on. One way to reduce the sting is to see it for what it is not—I repeat it is not someone saying you’re a bad writer.

And of course, they may be completely wrong about the manuscript you did send them. There’s always that. We’ve seen that many, many times (eat your heart out you twenty plus editors who rejected HARRY POTTER). But, right or wrong, that won’t matter to you at the moment you get the rejection. It will hurt. (Steinbeck called his many rejections “ each one a little death.” )You can write a rejection of a rejection. You can scream and shout and curse etc… But after all that what you have to do, what you must do, what you can do, is write on. Keep writing on. That’s what writers do. Eventually someone will say yes.

Friday, March 19, 2010

what's at stake?

Writing books and teachers and workshop leaders often get to this question about a manuscript: WHAT’S AT STAKE? What is your character risking to get what he wants? What is at stake in your story as a whole? For example, in Harry Potter there are always lots of minor things at stake in scenes (passing a test, getting in trouble with Snape etc...), and his life is often at stake and there’s also usually the threat against a friend or friends, the school, his whole world. The stakes are constantly raised as the story progresses. In Michael Chabon’s great novel WONDERBOYS what’s at stake are the careers of an older writer and a younger writer—at first. But as the characters are developed it becomes much more than that, it becomes each of their futures and what they will be as men and writers. The story twists around so the deepening of character occurs as the stakes are raised. In my novel ALIEN INVASION AND OTHER INCONVENIENCES the stakes begin with the survival of Jesse, my main character, but it’s obvious before long that the survival of all humans, except as alien slaves, is also at stake. Threats to that survival (both Jesse’s, his friends, and mankind, womankind, all kind) grow as various things happen in the book and the stakes are raised. Also, the characters develop, come to want more than just to survive, and this forces them to act in ways that the stakes are raised.

I think what’s at stake can be looked at scene by scene. A boy risks telling a girl he loves her; she says, “Don’t be a fool, Brandon. I think of you as a brother.” Then, of course, any number of reactions might occur. He decides to become an evil warlord and conquer the world so he can show her; that would be one oh-so-obvious one, but there are others. Not every scene needs to have something at stake. Some scenes will be devoted to developing characters in ways that aren’t about raising stakes, but there should be some arc, some structure in which stakes are raised as the novel moves toward its end.

Or so I think today.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Avoid summary

If you’re like me you want to understand what you write. You want to know what it’s all about. It’s your world after all. But we’re wrong. One of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, wrote that writers don't always understand what they write as they write. It was just a passing comment. He said that when writers are writing well, they’re writing about something they can almost grasp.

Sometimes I give into the sin of summary. I want to summarize what I’ve been trying to say in a story. I want to make it clear. Sometimes when I do this, I’m being reductive in a way that harms the story. It’s easy to want to sum up ideas and emotions and insights. We know our characters, right? We know our world. We have something we want to say and of course we want to say it as clearly as we can. But, in fiction, often what you’re writing about, since it is played out in a dramatic fashion, shouldn’t be explained. It is best to allow your story to do what it does and realize that sometimes even you won’t know exactly what you’re trying to get at. You’ll ALMOST know. You have to just let it be.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010



In most stories there comes a moment in the evolution of the plot and character, at or near the end, when the main character realizes something, has a moment of understanding. Everything should have been leading the reader to this moment. Things have happened and changes have occurred and now the payoff is a realization, an understanding, by our main character about some essential aspect of his story. For example, a man has desired a certain woman who has no desire to be desired. The man struggles to win her and once he understands he never will, never can, then he struggles to accept the fact she can’t love him. The moment of understanding in the story will be when he realizes this. Once a writer realizes that this understanding is what she’s been writing about all along, then she goes back and REWRITES to make everything fit into this story. That’s an essential part of rewriting to me. Everything has to fit. Every scene drives the reader to the moment when the elements of the story come together.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Why write?

Why do I write anyway?

There are lots of other things to do, after all. I could catch up on my TV watching for instance, learn to surf, teach my dog to do stupid tricks that might land him a sweet moment on David Letterman. I might go out more with my wife, friends, visit more places, seek out interesting hobbies like poker and needlepoint. Maybe I can sing, after all. I’ve never been able to carry a tune and the very idea of performing gives me hives (in a metaphorical sense), but American Idol here I come.

Or not.

All I’m saying is I’ve got other things I could be doing.

But nearly every day I wander, somewhat reluctantly now and then but mostly enthusiastically, back to my computer. After some starring out the window, I start the tap, tap, tap of the keys that has become one of the primary rhythms of my life. I make those little letters into words and then sentences and paragraphs and chapters and, eventually, books. It’s still a mystery to me how they can become a story but they do.

Maybe that’s it right there. It’s still a mystery to me. Maybe that’s why.