Wednesday, December 14, 2011

story ideas

Ideas might come directly from character. A lot of writers start with a character and make that character move forward. What that character wants and what gets in the way of that want is what powers the story.

So let’s say you have a little girl, a tomboy, and she’s got a very distinct Southern voice. She lives in a little town. She has a strange neighbor next door.

Now what? Seems a little generic. If the voice of the girl is strong, though, maybe this will help the writer find her way. Let’s say she has a brother and maybe a friend. They have some adventures.

Things begin to happen but if this story is just about the little girl and her friends, it might be good but it won’t be great. A Southern town during the time of segregation and the Depression and a social structure that creates inequality and promotes prejudice though adds another dimension. The setting is another idea of the author and the development of that setting broadens the story. But now we need some kind of inciting event. A black man is accused of raping a white woman. The girl’s father defends the black man.

I don’t really know how Harper Lee began her story, but somehow many, many ideas bloomed in what could have been the simple story of a girl growing up in a small town. Harper Lee found her way to this larger story situation and then was able to write it so vividly she created a great novel.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

narrative current

Narrative current helps hold a story together. So many stories do a lot of things well and struggle with just one or two major things and these make the manuscript lose its power.

One of those things that is often the culprit is narrative current. Say a writer writes well and has interesting characters andmany wonderful scenes BUT somehow they don’t fit together. There aren’t connections between these scenes. There isn’t a sense of story arc. The writer feels that it isn't quite right but doesn't know how to fix it. The story needs a coherent narrative, a current that will carry it to the right conclusion.

Usually when a writer says something like my story is about love or my story is about loss, they’re talking about theme. These are big, often general or abstract ideas and while the story may very well be about these larger issues they don’t, by themselves, hold the novel together. Theme or the big ideas behind your work are necessary and important but they aren’t what is pulling the story along—at least not by themselves.

Narrative current demands a sense that the whole narrative is taking the reader someplace. The scenes in the story have to be constructed in such a way that the reader feels compelled to find out where this current is carrying them and not just what the scene is about. Connections are essential. The writer chooses the right details because he or she finds this current and so it puts them in the right place.

This might all sound like plot and it certainly is plot but plot is too narrow. It’s not just about what happens in each scene but how these scenes fit together and the interior life of characters and their development etc… Without a narrative current the story strays off or it feels stagnant in places even if it does eventually move to a conclusion.

Or so I think today

Saturday, November 26, 2011

scene and summary/ show and tell

BAD WRITING ADVICE #9--always show and never tell.
Shouldn't be listened to. Really, can't be listened to. Every novel has some showing and some telling. First, there's the summary that comes between scenes, the telling that gets characters from scene to scene and summarizes events that would be tedious for the reader to experience. Sometimes this might be moving from place to place or having a person get ready for school or work or any number of things that don't need to be shown. Then there is description. Then there is backstory. I'm sure there are others, but the point is clear. Things have to be told. Here's the important part: THE WRITER HAS TO SELECT WHAT SHOULD BE SUMMARIZED and TOLD and WHAT SHOULD BE SHOWN IN SCENES. Pick right and the novel will feel balanced and will move without feeling thin. Pick wrong and--well, not good.

But there is also showing and telling within scenes. Here you should mostly show because you're trying to make the reader experience what the characters are experiencing. However, there will be times where some kind of analysis or explanation will enhance a scene. So even within a scene, there will be moments where telling can be a good thing if it isn't overdone. Here's an example from Pamela Painter's book on writing WHAT IF? This is a scene from Hempel's story "In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried."

"I have to go home," I said when she woke up.

She thought I meant home to her house in the Canyon, and I had to say No, home, home. I twisted my hands in the time honored fashion of people in pain. I was supposed to offer something. The Best Friend. I could not even offer to come back.

I felt weak and small and failed.

Also exhilarated.

The bold is telling and it makes clear to the reader the conflicted feeling of the narrator. It's effective.

It's the balance of telling and showing that needs to be looked at closely in everything you write.

Or so I think today.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

bad writing advice

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW: How many times has this been written and rewritten, told and retold? The problem with the advice is inexperienced writers will think it means they have to write about their childhoods and what they had for dinner last week or their husband’s or wife’s new job. A writer who only writes about his or her life not only will most likely not have much to write about (sorry but most lives just aren’t that interesting) but more importantly he or she will make all the wrong decisions. They’ll be trying to stick to the truth of what happened and they will not allow the story to be told the way it needs to be told to be interesting and vivid.

I was in a graduate workshop once, and there was a retired policeman in the class. He wrote a story about policemen. Everyone in that workshop said the story didn’t ring true. The policeman said, “But it’s a true story.” He was arguing that it must ring true because it was true. But it doesn’t matter if something “happened” to a reader. A reader needs to be convinced on the page. The cop author picked the wrong details and didn’t show what he needed to show because he was wed to what actually happened.

Of course writers use their past to show emotional truths. They use events sometimes or things that happened to them. They definitely use ways they have felt in certain situations to create vivid emotions in scenes. BUT few writers (always exceptions) stick to a literal retelling in their fiction. It’s too confining.

A better way to think about what you should write about is “don’t write about what you cannot know”. But here’s the thing: you can know most things with research, which is pretty much just an Internet connection away. So that opens up what you can write about. More importantly, you can imagine most things so that really opens up what you can write about. You need to open up to allow yourself to imagine an original story and fresh situations.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

revision: mad scientist...

I had three readers, my wife and my agent and an assistant at the agency where my agent is an agent, read the manuscript while I let it set. I lasted nine days before I went back to it. I would have liked to let it set longer, but I’m getting revisions back from my editor soon on my other novel, the one coming out next, and I wanted to try to get another draft of Mad Science done before I get those.

My agent is very excited by the manuscript, which makes me excited. She and the agency assistant had some suggestions for revision though and I’ve written these out and thought about them. I like to write them. It helps me see comments a little more clearly. My wife had pretty much the same reaction as agent and assistant but one of her concerns wasn’t brought up by the other two. What I’ll do is go through the manuscript with an awareness of potential problems suggested by the critiques and see what happens.

I have to stay true to the manuscript and my vision of it, of course, but every writer benefits from outside advice and criticism and so it’s important to try to figure out what problems may have made your readers feel something was off in a certain place or a certain way.

At any rate, I’m excited to get back to the manuscript and see how I feel about it. Also, for me, this is one of the best parts of writing. I’m reworking sentences to try to get the “lightening” and not the “lightening bug” effect. So much fun.

I’ve got through about fifty pages and though I am having a good time, I’m worried about the ending. The ending is where there are still problems and most of the questions of my readers came from the last thirty pages. There are things that aren’t clear. SO I could keep going and get there when I get there, maybe a week or two at most, but I decide to do something I do sometimes—I’m going to skip up there and drop into those last thirty pages and work on them.

This lets me focus on the problem area without having worked through the whole novel which makes me fresher toward it. And I know I’ll go back to p. 50 and work forward again after I’ve gone over these last 30 pages so I’ll get the continuity I need when I do that.

Sometimes it’s helpful to work on one section or one problem or character etc… when you revise rather than doing the more general revision.

Friday, November 4, 2011

To a Character's heart

You’ve probably heard this before but I’ll say it again:

The way to a character’s heart (and isn’t that where we, as writers, are trying to get?) is through the things he or she wants/needs/desires and the things he or she fears. The acts that the character does in order to get what he or she wants and to avoid what he or she fears create character. These acts in the main characters also often drive the story.

Kind of a big deal, really.

Thinking about this in early drafts might help you decide what happens next or how a scene should work. Thinking about this in later drafts might help you select what should stay and what should go.

Friday, October 28, 2011

finishing a draft

Nearing the end of MAD SCIENCE...Since this post is behind me a little in time, the manuscript is out in the world. We'll see what happens.

Also, I've joined the MAD MAD WORLD of twitter. I'm there: BrianYansky@...I kind of like it. Seems more interesting that fb or maybe it's just new.

Also, just finished a round of edits on my second alien novel, tentatively called FIGHTING ALIEN NATION. I made some good changes, I think, I hope.


Now it does feel like the right time to let the manuscript set for a while. So I was right to wait. I just have to accept that I’ll know when I’ve taken the manuscript as far as I can without taking a rest from it. Sure, there are always things I can do. I could go through it right now and find language things to change. BUT that’s not the best use of my time. I know there are bigger problems than my using the almost right word (a big problem, yes, but for a later draft) and I need a little distance to see those bigger problems.

Right now I really love this manuscript. Why pretend otherwise? It’s good. I can’t see its faults. It’s a great feeling. But, alas, it’s not true. I need to see the faults so I can make my next revision push the manuscript forward.

Honestly, I love that I love writing. I love the moments when the manuscript feels right to me and I don’t want to lose those. Delusion is an important part of writing. But it’s also important to get beyond it to make the manuscript better.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

JG rules

The Rule of John
John Gardner is one of the kings of writing about writing. He had a lot to say. He also wrote several very good novels. Two of my favorites are told by monsters, one is Freddy’s Book and the other is Grendal. You’ve got to love a story from a monster’s POV. They are certainly underrepresented in fiction.

“Good writers may ‘tell’ almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings. One may tell the reader that the character went to a private school…or one may tell the reader that the character hates spaghetti; but with rare exceptions the characters’ feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events—action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting. Detail is the lifeblood of fiction” John Gardner.
Thank you Mr. Gardner.

Notice he says “good writers may tell”—you still have to find a way to make your telling interesting.
Notice “rare exceptions” because sometimes you will break even John Gardner’s rules. This may happen more frequently when writing humorous scenes and you describe feelings for a laugh.
But these and other exceptions only prove the Rule of John.

Friday, October 14, 2011

more mad science

Mad Science 21
So I’ve now been through the whole manuscript again. It’s getting closer. I’ve added more to it and clarified the narrative somewhat. Most importantly, I think I’ve given the characters more depth. Getting into each character a little more has caused me to see the relationships between some of the characters more clearly: Ash and Frank and Frank and his father, in particular.

When I’m in the draft I’m engaged by it and I’m always walking around thinking about it—at this stage I mean. It’s the nature of this place in the manuscript that there are many things that need to be worked out and worked through and, like most writers, I mull over ways to work through them.

BUT , also, there’s the struggle to make it more—more believable, more compelling, more interesting, more emotional etc… at this point. I’m looking for places where the interaction between characters in a scene isn’t quite right—that can be for a number of reasons. Wrong motivations maybe or I lose the momentum of a scene or I give into abstractions rather than finding the specific words that will reveal what the scene is about or a failure of language in some way.
This is why most writers rewrite so much. There are many, many things to be done in revision.
Mad Science 22
I think I might be at the place where I’ll print the manuscript up and take a look at it that way. It helps me look at it differently when I see it on the page so I think that’s the next step. Depending on how this goes, I might then go into my set-the-manuscript-aside for a few weeks mode. For the last few novels this has been the point where I try to get a few readers—my agent who is kind enough to read and give back comments and my wife for sure and maybe another person. Depending on the timing, I might try to get my critique group to look at part of it or all of it.

Just to be clear—I’ve had my agent for five or six years and I’m not trying to get an agent or I wouldn’t show it to one until I had the book in the best shape I could make it. But since I have a working relationship with my agent I find it’s helpful to get her feedback when I feel like I have a manuscript that’s in good shape but not ready to submit shape. She can give me some perspective and she’s willing to do it and it can be very helpful to have at a certain point when I’m heading into the homestretch with the manuscript.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Importance of situation and teen book festival


I was at the Austin Teen Book Festival last weekend (see above). That was a great place to be. Over two-thousand excited teen readers. Yes, they are out there. It was amazing to see them and I was honored to be part of it. One of the many questions asked to the panel I was on was how do you get started writing? I think, for me, writing often starts with a situation. I began my novel ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES thinking about the topic of alien invasion but narrowing it to the situation of an invasion that only takes ten seconds. That pretty much forced me to write about what happened after the invasion, which was what interested me most. Writers start in all kinds of ways, but for me the ideas and characters begin in some kind of situation.

Friday, September 30, 2011

great expectations/mad science

So what did I do? I read, or actually am reading GREAT EXPECTATIONS. As so often happens when I’m reading or watch something, it inspires something in my work. Coincidence? Kismet? Or more likely I just am looking for ways to fit my experiences into my manuscript because I’m at that point when it’s on my mind a lot when I’m not writing.

Dickens makes you care about his characters. He draws them so compellingly that you are emotionally engaged with them. True, some characters, mostly minor, are caricature or almost caricature. Often they are funny in some way but not always. But the main characters are flesh and blood and you want to know what will happen to them.

I was inspired to go back and work on my characters, particularly Ash, the girl my main character cares about. Each draft, for me, gets longer. I’m an adder, I guess. I’m like a painter who keeps adding layers of paint. Some people are cutters. They start off with the big piece of stone and do the Michelangelo thing of cutting away the excess stone. But me, I’m an adder, and that’s what I’m back to doing. I can’t seem to keep away from the manuscript so I don’t try. There will come a point when I need to give it a break but I’m not going to force myself to do that now. I’ll know when the time comes and the manuscript seems worked enough that I NEED the distance to work it more.

Friday, September 23, 2011

mad scientist-character

Mad Scientist 18
I need him to be more. I need to go deeper into the character. He doesn’t fit in his world. He wants to know why. That’s the key. He thinks he wants to fit in but that’s not what he wants. He wants to know why he doesn’t. ( I do constantly, in revision, try to sort out this what he “wants” question and find it has many layers and this helps me give him layers). This means he needs to feel something isn’t right. He thinks it’s in him that it’s not right. So this needs to be more present in the novel right from the very start.

This kind of mulling over the character goes on all the time at this stage in a draft. It causes many close calls when you’re driving and your loved ones often find themselves talking to themselves while you are sitting next to them. HEY, they’ll say, WERE YOU LISTENING TO ME? You weren’t. OF COURSE, you say. But if you’ve been writing a while they’ve seen this look before and they know.

Mad Scientist 19
I’m at the end of this draft that is draft 2 and draft 3 in some parts of it. I’ve done a lot in this draft and that’s the best way to think of it. I know there’s a lot more to do but I’ve done a lot.

Do I go back and start over or do I let it sit a while. At this point I might do either. It doesn’t feel done enough to go for the “take a break,” get DISTANCE draft. No, it doesn’t seem quite right enough for that so I think I’ll rework certain parts. I guess I’m uncertain what to do. I know the end needs work so I might focus on that. I’ll see where that leads me. Writing is full of choices. In revision I’m making those decisions in a less intuitive way than in the first discover draft and the second first draft.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Keep Trying

Here's a little Ray Bradbury. All a writer can do is keep trying. You try to find ways to get better when you aren't writing and when you are. Ray Bradbury talks here about his early struggles and the turning point in his writing when he wrote a story that mattered, that he felt was beautiful. It came out of an experience he had as a child. It was a terrible and haunting experience. He was a little boy playing on a beach at a lake. A girl was playing there, too. Then she went into the lake and she didn't come out. That's what he said. It's such a haunting line. The death of the little girl is one of those memories he carries and it is the one that inspires this first story that he calls beautiful. Her going into the lake and not coming out becomes a metaphor for death in the story. Stories come from everywhere. But I think a lot of our best writing begins in memories that won't go away.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Persuading The Character to Arc

Mad Scientist 16
Connections are important whenever you’re working on a manuscript. As I’m going through The Mad Scientist what I’m realizing is the connections I make seem to be different than the ones I made in the first draft.

It’s coming together more now. Like I just realized a message my main character got earlier in the novel wasn’t right. It needed to be more specific because it didn’t really add anything to the later action.

So I went back and changed it and that changed the later section. It made it more real. These connections are so important. Everything has to come out of everything else in an organic way. Everything has to fit together, add to narrative and character.

Mad Scientist 17
I think I’m writing something into my character that is unearned. Not to say I’m stealing, you understand. No theft involved. Just that he hasn’t earned the thing I’m saying he has.

We talk about character arc. Well, I don’t, but I’ve had editors who have—as in, “Brian, this character doesn’t have enough arc.” BUT the character can’t just arc because I want him to. I think it’s right that he should change in the way I have him change in the manuscript, but now what I have to do is go back and, beginning at the beginning, change him so that later changes seem true to his character.

Writing is rewriting and rewriting and rewriting—at least for me. I need all the chances I can get.

Friday, September 2, 2011

To Outline or Not to Outline?

A break in my diary concerning the way I’m writing A Mad Scientist’s Son to ask:
To Outline or Not to Outline?
Whether it is nobler in the mind’s eyes to scratch out an outline of short or long length or suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune without even a written hint of how you’ll transcribe them onto the page before you begin? Yep, that’s the question.

It seems to me that if you do not outline at all, if you’re one who stumbles along through a first draft, then that’s all there is to say about that. Just do it. Most writers are like this. I am like this about my first draft which is really just a discovery draft. I’ve been thinking about the story for some time but I haven’t written anything down. I just start writing. However, there many places in the manuscript when I just write a few lines for a scene and write something like MORE LATER. This is sort of the Swiss-cheese method. There will be big gaps or holes in this draft. So it will be on the short side, but (VERY IMPORTANT) it will go from beginning to end. I know my end by the end. Next draft I write toward that end.

So in a sense my discovery draft sort of works like an outline except it’s not. Some writers do outline. Some outline a lot and some a little before they begin. I once interviewed Sherman Alexie and he said he always knew the last line of his novel before he started and wrote toward that. Check out how much John Irving outlines here—amazing to me:.

As with all elements of process, you have to do what works for you.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

More Mad Scientist's Son

Mad Scientist 14
Doing this blog is making me aware of how much I’m changing in this version of Mad Scientist (version number 3 if you count the discovery draft). It’s not down to just language yet by any means. My changes that attempt to clarify theme earlier in the manuscript are making me think I need to cut characters and completely redo the next few chapters. It feels like I went off the path here. By theme here I’m talking about what is lurking beneath the surface story—what ideas and issues are being worked out in this story.

Mad Scientist 15
I realized some things about the main characters that I didn’t understand earlier. I just kept working on adding to manuscript and finally it seemed clear.
Why oh why couldn’t I see this before? I don’t want to seem ungrateful to the writer Gods. After all, it was a glorious morning, seeing the way to go. I praise them effusively. But this process is so damn messy.
You know what I’m grateful for though is the ability of self-delusion. It is so helpful that I’m able to think I’m writing better than I am at each stage of the writing. Okay, I know there are problems, but I still manage to find pleasure in a good sentence, an insight into character, etc…
So today I see the motivation of an important secondary character which will effect Frank, too, and more especially another important secondary character, and it’s so much better than last draft, so much more believable within the context of the draft.
But here’s another thought, back to the last paragraph. Maybe it doesn’t matter when I come to my insights in writing as long as I come to them. And that ability to be happy within the context of a draft, that self-delusion, is a kind of gift.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

mad scientist 13

Mad Sceintist 13
What I’m struggling with today is something that I thought yesterday and that I’ve been mulling over since. Mulling is the writer way. Mull while you eat your Frosted Flakes (an admission that I eat kid’s cereal for breakfast), take your shower, walk your dog, exercise or avoid exercise, and so on. Mull, mull, mull. Most writers are mullers.

But back to the point. My main character changes but I don’t really have my secondary character changing. She is supporting my main character but that’s not good enough.

This is definitely analysis here but I am in revision stage so I need to stand back in places.
1. I need to look for places to make my main character’s CHANGING more dramatic.
2. I need to look at secondary characters and make them change more.

There are two concerns here. One is with narrative structure, that arc of character that people are always going on about and how it influences the arc of the story. The other is about characters, the heart of fiction. Really. If people don’t care about your characters, then, in the words of movie Mafiosos, “Forget about it.”

That was why, earlier, it worried me so much when I felt my characters didn’t have heart, another way of saying they didn’t feel flesh and blood yet.

So for the sake of story and character I need to clarify the changes that they go through in this story. I figured out one change that wasn’t there before yesterday and today I’m going to go back through the first hundred pages I’ve revised and see if I can make that change work.

Also, if it does then it needs to be “in” the manuscript from the beginning. Any change made on p. 80 needs to connect to p.1.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

more mad scientist

Still working on my mad science novel. I've been writing some blog entries as a kind of diary of the work and to show how I worked through problems in a specific novel I was writing. The blog entries are a little behind real time now. It's a strange, strange novel, so I do worry that I'm writing one that won't find a publisher. You never know, especially if you take chances in your work, if it will find a home. Even if it does work (and you're not certain of that either until you finish and sometimes not even then), your publisher--even if you've published a few books--might say no for a number of reasons. Still, you have to write what you have to write and the real enjoyment and pleasure in writing comes from that. But I can say that my agent has read a version of the novel and loved it. That's encouraging. Still more work to do, but I feel good that she didn't just say, "Now what is this again? Tell me again what you've written?" More later...back to the journal.....

I have to keep working on the language because one of the things I discover in revision is that I put a filter between the story and the reader too often. Yes, you have to summarize sometimes but when you’re trying to involve the reader in a scene the filter not only distances the reader it makes me unable to see the deeper aspects of some interaction. I have to make the connections to deepen the writing.
Specificity of language helps me find my way and I keep working on that. You can write your way into deepening a character sometimes.
This is my third rewrite of the whole manuscript though some places have been rewritten more than that. Thinking about character today. Fiction is ultimately about getting readers to feel and experience what your characters experience so they care about them. Ideas behind all that are interesting if they’re interesting ideas, but they aren’t the reason the reader will read and care about your story/novel.

Okay, so one thing I’m doing today to try to deepen the characters is strengthening the relationship between the father and son. And what I just did was have a flashback and not long after that a flash-forward.

Flashback helped. It helped me see more of dad and son and I have to keep working that. I need to feel more what’s at stake between them.

Flash-forward is me trying to say indirectly what the consequences of what’s happening in a scene might be. This has to come out of character though. It can’t be thought up. It has to flow organically from the scene. What it adds, besides character development, is a hint at the possible future of the story.

Friday, August 5, 2011

bang your head against the wall school of writing

I interrupt my regularly scheduled MAD SCIENTIST posts for an important message. As I was banging my head against the wall this morning trying to create a coherent sentence, I suddenly realized that this was my method of writing. I am of the bang-your-head-against- the-wall school of writing. True, it does lead to a slightly misshapen head and if you get carried away there is the danger of concussion, but it’s my school just the same, my alma mater. Go bang-your-head-against- the- wall writers.

If you write and write and write WITH a constant eye toward what you’re doing wrong and right in each piece you work on while, when perplexed, banging your head against the wall for guidance, you will eventually find your way. I am a believer.

Or so I think today.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mad Scientist's Son #8.9

Okay, reading through the beginning of The Mad Scientist’s Son and I think that the emphasis in wrong. I do think about structure more than I used to in revision because I know it’s a weakness of mine. There’s a lengthy flashback near the beginning and I’m going to have to cut. It takes the reader away from the main current of the story too soon. So not only is it a distraction but it may actually take the reader in the wrong direction. You don’t want to take the reader in the wrong direction.

This relationship begins with unrequited love. Frank keeps saying, “My friend, not my girlfriend” because he has to keep reminding himself. I need to connect this to his NEED TO FIT IN—which is important to where he starts this novel.

So one thing I see is Frank’s POV is a little distant. I didn’t see that before. Why can’t I just see these things in draft 1? I don’t know but I can’t. And I’m not alone. Stephen King in his book on writing talks about how he finds big glaring train wreck problems in his manuscripts in revision. It’s part of the process, I guess. And it sucks because you think once you finish a few novels you could avoid the glaring train wrecks but, like life, afraid not.
Maybe sometimes. Maybe.

But now, with Frank, focusing on POV and getting closer and making him see out of his POV instead of forcing an external POV , the language is changing and I’m writing myself closer to his character.

OLD VERSION: It was then that a hologram carrier pigeon fluttered above us and landed on my shoulder. Old bird eyes stared into mine in that flat, declarative way of, well, old birds. The technology for holograms was so good now that it was easy to forget the bird wasn’t real.

NEW VERSION: The fluttering above me made me look up and there was a hologram carrier pigeon asking permission to land. I gave it and it landed on my shoulder, claws pinching my skin. Old bird eyes stared into mine in that flat, declarative way of, well, old birds. He seemed real and even intelligent, as if he had something to say. I mean more than a message.
This was a wrong thought. If I spoke it to others, they would frown.

There’s something about seeing from the inside out, working from that place inside and coming out instead of trying to force the description in-- that adds more to a scene and also helps making connections inside a character. The things I start seeing because of a closer relationship to my character allow me to deepen that character.
I’ve just got to keep on. Of course they’ll be tightening at the sentence and word level but this gives me a way into my character and story.
Or so I think today.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mad Scientist's Son #7

I’m still playing around with the heart metaphor. Heart can be used in another way, as in center. And maybe that’s part of my struggle right now as I end this second draft of the novel and go to the third.

I imagine different hearts of the novel, different centers, and I try to organically get to one, but I don’t think I have yet. I mean I have several ideas about what might be at the heart of this novel, but they’re not entirely clear to me.

This could be a novel about someone who doesn’t fit into his world and is trying to fit in-- but it isn’t that novel now. It needs a lot of change to get there, change that must begin in the beginning. A novel has to be connected, has to have a current, from the start. And that means I’d be changing a lot in this next draft to make that identity problem THE HEART of the novel though could be this: he wants to fit but he doesn't.

Structure is always a struggle for me. If a novel becomes fragmented by an unclear center then it’s hard for it to keep that narrative momentum it needs. A novel needs to advance—characters have to change and narrative deepen-- or the reader gets bored.

Or so I think today.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


There’s a point in every novel where it becomes all wobbly at the knees. It seems about to take a big tumble. You doubt everything. That’s now. I’m struggling because I’m uncertain it holds together and some of the problems I’ve already talked about seem Mt. Everest in size.

I have thoughts of starting a new book. Wouldn’t that be fun? A new book will give me some distance, some perspective. Maybe if I just set this one aside and move on to a new story then I’ll have the new story going and I can come back and climb Mt. Everest. In fact it won’t even be Mt. Everest anymore maybe. It will be Mt. Nothing Too Hard To Get Up and Over.

But, of course, that’s not true. And, also, even if I did write a new manuscript I’d still come to the same kind of problems eventually. I’d be right back here looking at Mt. Everest.

I do, at least, know that I can only finish a novel by finishing a novel. I have to push on in my imperfect, stumbling, bumbling way. Whatever happens with this novel, I have to see it through.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

More Mad Scientist's Son


I’ve already expressed my diagnosis for this manuscript. Needs more heart. I think it feels thin. Sometimes you get mostly through a draft and you have the sneaking suspicion that something is wrong. You aren’t sure what. You have to listen to that obnoxious and unwanted voice though.

I need to push through to the end even though my inclination is to go back to the beginning. But I’ll have a nice, short, beginning to end draft if I push through. Then I can go back and do heart surgery. I’m sure it will need lots of other work, too. This whole making something out of nothing, breathing life into characters, isn’t easy.


There’s a big difference between wanting to fit in and wanting to know why you don’t fit in. Frank wants to know why he doesn’t fit in. So in a sense he wants to know the truth of his situation. This has to be clearer from the start. It has to be in there from the start. Part of this must be that he feels something beyond him, something withheld.

So I need all of this PRESSURE in his situation. There is the echo of life in it if it’s done right. There is something going on that is withheld and beyond us all. Why are we here—and then there’s that bitter and inescapable truth: no one gets out of here alive.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Mad Scientists Son #3-rule breaking

Today I pushed ahead into a section that may or may not work. I’m adding a new POV in the last third of my novel. You aren’t supposed to do that. I can remember an instructor I worked with at Vermont College telling me that it was a bad idea when I did it in a manuscript I wrote over ten years ago. She was right then. The ghost of her voice comes back to me now.
“Don’t do it. Bad idea,” her ghost voice says.
“But it feels like it might be a good one.”
“Same thing Napoleon probably said right before he invaded Russia and we know how that turned out.”

She’s right. I know it goes against a very sensible fiction writing rule. Do not bring a narrator in so late. The reader doesn’t have time to warm to them. It’s jarring also to have the sudden switch. It may undermine established rhythms you’ve worked for.

There are many good reasons not to do what I seem to be doing anyway.

Sometimes you just have to go with what feels right though. However, I am aware that I might be fooling myself so I’m going to keep this POV for now, but I’m going to be suspicious of it. In later drafts when I’m thinking about structure and I’m forcing myself to get some distance from the work, I’ll try to be sure this actually fits and works. If not, I will be merciless. It will be gone faster than a bad piece of fruit.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Mad Scientist's Son#2-TWPTWD

There are some cool ideas in this novel.

I’m not sure these ideas in my novel work, but there are some interesting ones. I’m trying to get one figured out right now because it’s a turning point in the manuscript. I thought about it last night, which was not a good idea. You want to toss and turn, just go to bed thinking about your novel.

“You’re like a fish flopping out of water,” my wife said.

I could say I am a fish flopping out of water BUT I’m not that ridiculous. Instead I grunt something about being sorry and go back to thinking and flopping.

It could be worse. I could be out driving. It’s always kind of a small miracle when I’m thinking some writer problem through and driving and I realize I’m at my destination. How did I get there? No clue. Really, the cops should be looking out for writers as much as drunk drivers.

I can hear the cop now. I get pulled over. “Are you a writer, Sir?”
Me, hesitantly, “Yes.”
“Thought so. You have the look. I’ll need to see your license and registration.”
“Was I doing something wrong?”
“I think you know you were.”
“Not really.”
“You haven’t been thinking your writer thoughts?”
He says “writer thoughts” with an uncalled for distain.
“Maybe a few.”
“More than a few I’d say. And then you thought you’d take a little drive?”
“I was just thinking. I can still drive when I think about writing.”
“They all say that. Should have taken a taxi.”
“Sorry is not good enough. Step out of the vehicle, Sir.”
“You’re taking me in?”
“This is going to cost you a lot more than a taxi. I’m going to have to charge you with TWPTWD, Thinking Writing Problem Through While Driving.”

“QUIT FLOPPING,” my wife said.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Mad Scientist's Son #1--No heart

I'M GOING TO TRY GETTING AT THE WRITING PROCESS IN A NEW WAY, NEW TO THIS BLOG ANYWAY. I'm writing a diary as I work though a manuscript. I hope I can talk about different aspects of the writing process and it will be fresh. I enjoy writing about writing, but I've done it for a while now and it's all getting a bit stale. New is good.

Here's where I am in the novel--I've written a first draft. My first drafts are neatly crafted works of art. HA. We're talking a hurl of words. We're talking a writing GPS that has schizophrenia. We're talking wandering all over the place. We're talking get-those-words-on- the-page-and-worry-later-if-it-makes-sense mentality because that's the only way I know how to do it. So my first draft is as rough as a Charlie Sheen breakup or breakdown or something like that. So, yeah, we're talking rough.

But it's done and I'm about halfway through my revision. So that's where this diary picks up.

So here's a place to start. My first thought this morning.

Crap. It's got no heart.

The manuscript has some things going for it, but there’s no heart. It’s the freaking TIN MAN of novels.

Maybe it was my focus on other things, especially the central idea of the novel that led me to my heartless manuscript. How do I get heart?

Go back to the beginning. Think about what the character wants/needs/ desires/ wants. I need to regroup and try to think this through.

On the surface he wants to find his father. He needs to find his father. That does help drive the plot. Okay so maybe I get more heart if I develop the relationship between the father and son more. Cause it’s there but it’s not there there. Needs to be there there.
But that’s not enough. It’s a good surface need, but it’s not really something that can give it HEART. I mean I want HEART. I need HEART.
Maybe identity is the heart. Maybe I need to make Frank more the outsider. I mean he is (he’s the son of a Mad Scientist but in this world Mad Scientists are sort of accepted and tolerated in the way that writers and other artists are in our world--sort of) but not enough maybe.

Make him someone who doesn’t fit and what he needs to know is why? Then he can move on. So he yearns to know why he doesn’t fit or to fit? Why he doesn’t fit, I think.

And it’s something I can do. I felt that way when I was sixteen. Maybe partly because I was adopted but mostly because I am who I am (Did Popeye the sailor man say that? Am I quoting Popeye the salior man now?). Anyway, I still feel that way sometimes. I can do this.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


As I work through my first drafts now, while I keep pushing forward and resist the urge to start all over (always there in the early draft), I’ m constantly thinking about how my story fits together. How what happens in chapter one fits with what happens in chapter twenty, for example. My first drafts are rough, rough, rough, more like discovery drafts, but I still keep this idea of connection in my mind because I don’t want to wander too far off. I don’t want to end up lost like some authorial Columbus asking, “Say, can anyone tell me the way to China? It’s supposed to be around here somewhere.”

So there’s that.

Then my revision, at least the part that doesn’t focus strictly on language, is about making these connections clearer and filling in my story.

And that’s what I’m getting at in this post. Novels are all about connections. Story arc, character development, all that comes out of connections that the writer makes during the process and then manages to convey dramatically in the work. Everything has to fit together. I think that keeping this in mind helps me with structure.

Friday, June 10, 2011

first drafts

Everyone works differently. I’ve said before I can’t outline and I can’t. But I think my first drafts are becoming more and more discovery drafts. I don’t even pretend anymore that I’m writing something close to finished.

I think part of this is because I realize that for me, in terms of structure, something I find out about a character on page 57 is going to change that character and maybe the story on page 3. Because a first draft is so much about discovering character and story and trying to integrate all the elements of fiction, I think it needs to be fluid.

You’ve got to be open to changes, big changes, at a structural level, not just changing words in sentences or moving sentences around in a paragraph.

So these days my first drafts are filled with places where I just mark what is going to happen.

My first draft is also filled with notes to myself. But it is a draft—not an outline. I have to try to muddle my way through the world I’m creating to feel like that world, however sketchy, exists.

But I know that my first draft is like an out- of- focus photograph. It’s impossible to see how it will be when it sharpens. There will be many choices ahead and there will be many chances to make connections. It’s kind of exciting and frightening. Finishing a first draft means both less and more than it once did when I believed my first drafts closer to a final version. One great thing about knowing my first draft is kind of a discovery draft is I don’t have high expectations, and I think that makes it easier for me to keep working when I face difficult moments in that draft.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011


I can’t get very far in a manuscript until I have a voice. I struggle with getting that voice sometimes, as in I rewrite and rewrite the first paragraph and page, but I need that voice, whether it comes in a flash or has to be worked for, before I can go very far in a manuscript.

Generally, I believe you should push forward in a first draft, letting your subconscious mind do most of the work. Of course you’re going to mull things over while you’re in the shower or driving to work (pedestrians and other drivers beware), but when you’re writing you’re mostly trying to get to that quiet place where you can create and experience it all at once--that, as Robert Olen Butler calls it, moment-to-moment experience of your story. However, I can’t do this without a true voice for my narrator. I can’t get there.

I’ll write ten or twenty pages sometimes just to see what happens but I’ll keep going back to that first page and toying with where the story starts and what the narrator’s voice is. For me voice is extremely important. That tone of the story helps me feel truly at home in my world. It’s essential for me that I get that early in the process, however imperfectly, to open up my story.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

after the acceptance

What happens after a writer gets an acceptance from the publisher? A whole lot of things. There’s the contract to sign, which is fun. The publisher promises to publish your book and even pay you a little money in advance for the right to do so. Yahoo to that. Then comes the editorial letter. Not as much fun as the contract I must admit.

Editorial letter?

It comes as a surprise to some new writers that their book will require further rewriting beyond all the rewriting they’ve already done. It will-- in most cases. I haven’t heard of many authors not doing at least one revision. Several revisions are more common.

What begins this process is a letter from the editor making suggestions. I’ve received a few of these now from several editors. They’re all different, but they all have some similar qualities. They begin with praise (anyone who is in a critique group knows the importance of this—the fragile writer ego needs a little love). Then the editor mentions some problems he or she thinks the manuscript has. Then he/she says that, of course, the writer should decide which suggestions are helpful to the writer’s vision of the book and which are not. After this though, the approach of the editors I’ve had varies. Some like to mention a problem and then spend some space explaining why they think it’s a problem and then move on. Some like to spin out possible ways to fix a problem. Usually, the first revision letter focuses on big issues of narrative or character. I say first because, again, you will most likely go through several revisions after the acceptance.

This sounds like it might be hard and I know some writers struggle with these revision letters, but provided you have a good editor (most are, I think, and all of mine have been) these letters are another chance at the manuscript. And who doesn’t want another chance to make the manuscript better? Really. Later, when the book goes out into the world and is reviewed and read by readers, you’ll be grateful for every single improvement made by every single revision. It’s hard to write a book. A good editor can really improve a novel and a writer should be grateful for all the help he or she can get.

So, after the thrill of acceptance, the first big step is going back to the manuscript and trying to make it better by going through the revision letter carefully. I try to be open to every possible change, but I know pretty quickly that some suggestions don’t work with my vision of the book. Others I think are definitely good points I need to work on. A lot I have to think over and work through because I’m just not sure about. So, my advice is not to blindly accept or reject any advice in an editorial letter but to read it through several times, make some notes, then get rewriting. Some suggestions I can’t decide about until I’m in the process of revision and see how certain changes affect the rest of the novel. It’s all part of the process.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

sheepdog writing advice

My sheepdog gave me some advice the other day, “Never take a bath. How will others know who you are if you don’t smell like you?”

Opps. Wrong advice. I meant some writing advice. He said, “Sheep like to wander. Sheep will wander at the first opportunity. You must be vigilant when you are herding sheep.”

That got me thinking about story and the way I struggle to figure out what really belongs. I think that it is easy, easy, easy to be distracted by all kinds of interests: language, interesting thoughts, diversions of all kinds. They make us take our eyes off our sheep and some of them wander off. The novel looses narrative momentum. A novel needs narrative momentum. It has to have it. You have to get all of your sheep from point A to point B. Don’t let your sheep wander.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories

I don’t know if any part of writing confuses me more than structure. I struggle with it all the time. What’s the shape of my story? How do I get all that STUFF to fit together? There are so many freaking concerns in writing even a simple story. We writers are juggling character, plot, theme, language and a dozen other things with two inadequate hands and a bit of delusional grandeur. And then, on top of this, we have to somehow create a structure that houses all of our intentions and connivances and deviations, that provides just the right architecture for all that we want to put into our story. It’s hard. Really hard. Or so I thought until I saw this explanation sent to me by my good friend Varian who knows that Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writer people. Thanks, Kurt, for putting it all in perspective.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

writing news

Sold a novel, which is a big thrill. It's the second one I've sold to Candlewick. I'm honored to be published by such a great publisher. Here's the Publisher's Lunch notice.

Brian Yansky's FIGHTING ALIEN NATION, the sequel to ALIEN INVASION AND OTHER INCONVENIENCES, which continues the story of the survivors of an alien invasion, again to Candlewick, with Kaylan Adair to edit, by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger (world English).

So it's another alien book for me. I guess I'm going through my alien period. Thank you little green men.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

the right word

Okay, so I've used this quote before but I've never really tried to explain it on the sentence level, so I thought I'd give it a shot.VIA Mr. Mark Twain, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening."

So let's say you have a story and your character, late at night, hears the sound of a baby crying outside his house. He's falling asleep but it startles him awake. The crying continues and he jumps up and swings open the door and steps out into amoonless night.He finds a cat sitting on his front walk.

So we want a sentence about this.

The sound of a baby crying and a cat screeching were similar.

SIMILAR as used here is definitely lightening bug for me. Oh, it does the job, sure. But it drags the whole comparison down. Maybe, too, the writer is making some deeper observation about how easy it is to think one thing is another, so the weakness of the word "similar" weakens the whole comparison. So much on just one word? Well, yeah. Let me try again.

A baby crying and a cat screeching are strikingly alike.

STRIKINGLY as used here is still lightening bug to me. Again, does the job. Not bad. Better than the first. Almost?

A baby crying and a cat screeching are erily alike? ERILY? Lightening bug. I'm not sure why exactly. Maybe too predictable?

A baby crying and a cat screeching are unforgivably alike. UNFORGIVABLY? For me that's lightening. Of course that kind of sentence makes a point and so the scene should be following this sense of two things that shouldn't be alike being alike and this situation should somehow be an echo of what's happening in the story. But, for me anyway, this is the right word for this sentence.

So much on the right word? I think so. Certain words in certain sentences need to be right and not almost right.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


Decisions, decisions, decisions. That’s what writing is all about. Many of those decisions should be intuitive in the first draft or drafts. How do you make decisions intuitively? You put yourself in the right place.

Easy to say. Hard to do.

I've put myself in the wrong place a whole lot I often realize as I revise my manuscript. What was I thinking? How did I go right when I should have turned left? Why couldn’t I see the opportunity for the relationship between my three main characters and the central conflict in that relationship? I didn’t exploit that. Missed opportunity. Missed. Missed. Missed.

But—doesn’t matter. To get a first draft on paper I just have to feel like I’m going in the right direction, making the right decisions, and make them well enough that I don’t end up in Anchorage when I’m trying to get to San Diego. So, I won’t get to San Diego in my first draft, but I will go in the general direction of San Diego. I will get close enough that maybe with work in revision I’ll know how to get there.

The intuitive decisions of a first draft, along with the conscious ones, only need to be roughly successful. That’s all. Most of the real work, in the heavy lifting sense, happens in revision.

Or so I think today.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


The way your character tells his story, the kind of language he uses and how he uses it to tell his particular story, is one way to think of voice. A lot of editors and agents say that the very first thing they look for in a manuscript is a strong voice.

I can see that. I love a strong voice as a reader. I start to believe in the story right away if I’m pulled in by the voice. Voice has to do with diction, of course; it has to do with our choice of words. But the way those words are arranged, the tone that emerges from those constructions, reveals character. I think that’s one of the reasons people react to novels with strong narrative voices. They feel an immediate connection to the character telling the story. They want to hear him say more, tell them more.

Friday, April 8, 2011


Published on IndieReader Houston's blog, too.

I will be at the TeenBookCon in Houston on Saturday, April 9. I’m on a panel called Guys Write Great Stuff. Well, they do. So do gals. Right now, in YA, there is so much great stuff being written it’s impossible to read it all.

So guys and gals write great stuff but do guys read it? That’s a question a lot of people have been asking in publishing and beyond lately because they’re worried they don’t. They’re worried that guys not reading will cause them to be poor readers later in life. Also, they’re worried they may not read for pleasure at all.

I worry about this, too, because I was one of those guys who did almost miss out on reading. I didn’t read much when I was a kid. I was well into my sixteenth year before I started opening books without being forced to by teachers.

What changed? I read a novel that did things that I never thought a novel could do. It was strange and funny and frightening and smart and wise and it spoke to me. It did. It was a novel called SLAGHTERHOUSE FIVE. But for every boy, and for that matter girl, it will be a different book. The important thing, particularly for boys, since girls seem to find their way to books and reading easier, is that they find THE BOOK. By this, I mean they find a book that they can’t put down, one that overcomes the resistance to books that comes from not reading them. They have to fall in love. One book is all it takes, in most cases, to decide to open another and another.

For me, reading Slaughterhouse Five made me realize I’d been missing out on things. I’d thought until then that reading novels was another task that had to be done for school. At best I thought of it as a distant and formal entertainment, not accessible like TV or movies. When I found out how wrong this was, how novels could speak more intimately and more directly and how I could participate more fully in the story, something changed for me. I saw the world differently. Great books will do that. They will change the way you see the world (maybe a little, maybe a lot) every time you read one.

So books became my entry into new worlds. They became my friends, too, and over the years I still return to many of those friends. Every book that moves you in some way will be a little different, but all will transport you to another world within this one we live in each day. That’s pretty amazing. That’s a little bit of magic in and of itself. You don’t have to become a writer to get great things from books. You just have to become a reader.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Leave In, Take Out

Writing is a constant rearrangement, like changing the way a room looks: moving the sofa here and the chair there and the bookcase to the other side of the room. And what should you keep and what should you throw away? Aye, that’s the question. It is a lot of work. You need a strong back and sometimes a hard heart. You can’t keep everything. Sometimes the very things you love most, like Uncle Harry’s velvet picture of tropical fish swimming down Fifth Avenue or Aunt Lulu’s diary descriptions of the twelve times she was abducted by aliens, may have to go.

There are many rooms in a novel, but there is no room for anything that doesn’t truly belong.

Kind of sucks sometimes.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


I attended an SCBWI conference recently and heard lots of talk about writing and editing and agenting and the future of publishing. What’s that future? According to one speaker it is a decentralization of publishing, way fewer brick and mortar bookstores, and way, way fewer libraries. Printed books? They’ll limp along for a while and then fade a way. It will be a brave new world of e-books.

And out there in blogland, from a multitude of sources, I hear again and again talk of the end of bookstores and of printed books. A lot of people compare books to music and say that it will be just like what happened to CD’s and music stores.


Maybe not.

Nobody knows, of course, but I do think of Mark Twain who read about his death in newspapers when he was sitting at home and quipped, later, to those same newspapers, “Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Is there an e-book revolution happening? Of course. Will it change things? Of course. But people do like the “new” and a lot of people who love their new readers might not want to use them exclusively once the newness has worn off. Also, it’s in the interest of reader sellers to make this “revolution” seem as overwhelming as possible. So you hear things like—there won’t be any bookstores in five or ten years and certainly no libraries etc…

But are books like CD’s? I don’t think so. People like the feel of a book in their hands. They have a loyalty to it, a relationship with it. No one had that kind of loyalty to CD’s. It just isn’t the same kind of experience. Some people say that the generation that is coming to reading now will not have that loyalty and this is probably true. UNLESS it isn’t. We’ve had several generations now growing up with videos. And now we can get movies not just with videos/DVD's but in many, many other ways without leaving our house. And the quality is excellent. So why do people? Leave their houses, I mean. Why do so many people still go to movie-theaters? They watch movies at home AND they go to movie theaters because the experience of seeing a movie in a theater still appeals to them.

I think there are plenty of people who will just read e-books in the future, but I also think there will be people who will read e-books and will still want to read printed books (I’ve read teens saying that so much of their life is spent starring at screens they enjoy looking at a page of print) and like going to bookstores and libraries. It will certainly be fewer than yesterday and today, but they’ll be around for some time yet.

Or so I think today.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Uninvited Characters

I was minding my own business, writing along, when a character I didn’t invite into my novel showed up. He just started talking and I knew that he had something interesting to say. Did I let him stay? YEP.

Here’s what I think about early drafts and sometimes even later drafts; if a strong character appears, I should hear him out, try to see how he might fit into the story, what he can add. I think these characters don’t really appear out of nowhere. If you’re connected to your manuscript and you’re in the story, they show up out of a need.

And sometimes they’re some of the most interesting characters you write.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Okay, it's not brain surgery

Writing is juggling many things at once and not thinking about any of them while you’re in the act of writing. There are just so many areas of concern: voice, character, plot, setting, language, and on and on. If we think about them while we’re writing, there’s a good chance we’ll freeze up or go into a kind of stiff, forced writing, or maybe make the wrong choices. And the wrong choices can be deadly in a novel. The wrong choices can lead you to other wrong choices and then you’re halfway through the novel and you’re thinking, HOW THE HE** DID I GET HERE? WHAT AM I DOING HERE? THIS ISN’T MY BEAUTIFUL NOVEL. THESE AREN’T MY BEAUTIFUL CHARACTERS (and before you know it you’re in a Talking Heads song—sorry, off topic). It’s not enough to write well. I’ve said that before, but it’s something worth saying again and again. A lot of people write well. A lot of people turn out good sentences. We have to do a lot of things at once to make the right choices or be able to go back in revision and evaluate your manuscript and figure out how to make the wrong choices right.

Writing a novel is a very complex act. Okay, it’s not brain surgery, but it’s difficult. I do think being aware of the many aspects can help a writer focus on a manuscript’s weaknesses in revision and avoid getting stuck on focusing too much on just one aspect. For example, and I have to admit I’m guilty of this myself sometimes, if your novel has serious structural problems rewriting and rewriting the first sentence 2000 times isn’t going to help. You have to look beyond the sentence and try to figure out the structural problem. Anyway, being open to changes in revision is a big step toward improvement of a manuscript.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Serious Nature of Comic Fiction

I believe a novel can be funny and serious. My work usually is (to the best of my ability) funny and serious. My latest novel, ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES, begins with this line “It takes less time for them to conquer the world than it takes me to brush my teeth.” It’s about what happens after the aliens take over and kill most of the inhabitants of our world. It’s about slavery and imperialism and ecology. There’s a lot of death in it. And, yet, if I’ve been successful at all, there’s also a lot of humor in it. You can write funny & serious and they can both even exist on the same page. It’s not easy. It’s walking a tightrope of tone. But it can be done.

Why is it so surprising to people that the comic and the serious can exist in a novel? Aren’t we humans this way in life? Don’t we cry at weddings and laugh at funerals? Sometimes in the saddest moments, even when we've lost someone, we’re reminded of some quirk of that person or something they did and we laugh even as tears fall from our eyes. Sometimes, as at weddings or intensely joyful moments, we’re so happy we cry.

Great comedians make us laugh at tragic things sometimes. Through their vision of a situation or verbal constructions they can make something sad funny. And it is a sad observation that many of the funniest people have a deep melancholy in them that allows them to be funny. Mark Twain said something like the secret source of humor is not joy, but sorrow. He should know.

Most of us are some mix of funny and sad and funny and serious and comic and tragic. I love fiction that mixes the two. Some examples of variations of these qualities are the following: STONER & SPAZ, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND, HUCK FINN, FEED, ELSEWHERE, GODLESS, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, and THE TRUE STORY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN to name only a few.

In my opinion there are many, many stories, both realistic and speculative, that mix comedy and serious intent. They’re the ones I’m most likely to fall in love with.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

selling out or not

Let me say first off, forgive the rant. But I am tired of hearing people say this writer or that writer sold out. I heard someone say it about Stephanie Meyer of Twilight fame the other day. Look, in order to sell out you have to be writing something far below what you could write and doing it for fame and fortune. Isn’t that what “selling out” means? But many writers who people say are selling-out aren’t selling-out at all. They’re writing what they can write. A lot of them feel passionate about what they write. How is that selling out?

You and I might not think what they write is very good. Or it might not appeal to you or me for other reasons. Of course, all of that is subjective. You might love something that I don’t and I might love something that you don’t, but the only writers that I consider sell-outs are those who are only writing what they write for money, career etc… That’s it. They have no real love for their writing, or the craft and art, no desire to write the best they can, and so on. Those are sell-outs. Someone who sells a lot of books writing in a popular genre usually isn’t a sell-out. They’re just writing what they can write--like the rest of us.

Or so I think today.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

be there out there

One big advancement for me as a writer was being able to BE THERE (wherever that might be) with my characters, so that my reader could be THERE with my characters experiencing the story in what Robert Olen Butler calls a "moment-to-moment" way. But there was something else I had to do to get to this place. I had to let go and allow myself to make my stories as weird as they could be. I had to go with the WEIRD TALES. That’s just who I am as a writer. I write strange comic stories about ridiculous and serious things. Every time I tried to tell my stories in a conventional way or pull back from the absurdist path my story was taking,it died or became the walking dead. And not in any interesting zombie way either. What I had to do was to go “out there” and just let my stories be what they had to be. So, in my case, I had to BE THERE OUT THERE to BE THERE.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Nothing wrong with the general. We spend a lot of time living in a general world. But it’s the specific that makes writing come alive. There will be summary in novels of course, telling that will often be general in nature. We need it. It moves the reader from one place to another in the novel, keeping the focus on what’s important instead of loading the reader down with pointless detail. We need the general, but what makes a novel come alive is specifics. If you have details, the right ones, the work will seem real.

From the writers POV, I think you arrive at the right choices in fiction, at the right details, by getting in the zone. That is, you get yourself to that subconscious place where you are living the world of your characters. Then in revision you look for those places where you’ve given way to the general—used the wrong word or failed to make a scene seem specific. It’s a constant battle to make every sentence and scene significant. I think this struggle is where a lot of our success or failure as writers occur. Genuine writing comes out of the specific.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Ideas 2

This is a continuation of my earlier post about ideas. It's also posted over at my agent's, Sara Crowe's, blog.

Where do your ideas come from?

When asked this question, I sometimes like to appropriate and regionalize a line from Kurt Vonnegut and say I get them in a little store out in West Texas near Marfa.

I wish.

So where do they come from?

Don’t have a clue, but I do know every writer has many, many ideas. They come when you’re in the shower, walking the dog, on the drive to work. They fall out of the sky when you least expect them. Sometimes you see a hint of one disappear around a corner and you have to chase it down. Regardless of whether they come easy or hard, the little buggers are everywhere. So when someone says they have A GREAT IDEA FOR ME, A SURE MILLION SELLER IDEA FOR ME, and all they want for their brilliant idea is 50% of the profits when I write the book, I get a little dismissive. Ideas are the easy part.

Easy. Getting them, that is. Actually making them work? Not so easy. Most ideas aren’t enough to carry a novel. The novelist Patrick Ness says he waits to write a novel until he has an idea that is strong enough to attract other ideas. I like this notion that you start with one idea and others are attracted to it. Another way to think of it is you begin with an idea and other ideas grow out of that one. If they don’t, then the novel will wither and die. Usually this happens around page thirty-three for me.

There are lots of different kinds of ideas. There are the big ideas behind a novel that create theme and there are the more focused ideas that drive scenes and characters. Sometimes the ideas will change as the writer moves through his story. For example, you think you want to write a novel about loss. Your main character’s girlfriend dies and it’s a novel about how he copes with this terrible and difficult situation, but halfway through the novel, he meets another girl and he starts to fall for her (Where did she come from? One day she just appeared on the page, but that’s another post) and his grief begins to fade and he feels amazement and gratitude and guilt, so then the novel becomes about this experience. Maybe the novel then becomes about this whole journey to a new life.

I read this article in a writer’s magazine not long ago about the subject of ideas. One writer said that he started his novel based on a single word. I don’t remember the word but I remember it wasn’t one of the big ones. Not one like freedom or liberty or sex or greed. It could have been kumquat for all I remember. I could never write a novel starting with one word. How could anyone start a novel with the word kumquat?

“One morning Henry woke to find he was a kumquat.”

“One morning a kumquat in a fruit salad began to talk to Henry.”

It’s obvious I can’t write a novel starting with the word kumquat. I’m not responsible enough.

All I can think is that the word, whatever it was, had an association with something important in the author’s life. I imagine that it happened like the evolution of most ideas in a novel. The word made him think of something else, and something else, and something else. Maybe he thought of his father one afternoon when he came home from the store carrying a bag of kumquats and the news that the family had to move and the boy would have to leave all his friends, his high school, his everything. Obviously not going to be a lover of kumquats. Or maybe he is and that’s the story. Why does he love kumquats?

I do think it’s helpful to consider that this gathering or growing of ideas, whether it begins with character or setting or theme or some point of action, is a process that can be worked through. It makes the whole act of starting a new novel a little less daunting to me if I think of it as a process of attracting and growing ideas. Of course once I get going I’m mostly thinking about characters and the moment-to-moment experience of those characters, but the ideas are woven into this if I’ve begun with one that’s strong enough to grow others.

The truth is even if there was an Idea store out in Marfa and even if they had a 70% off sale, I wouldn’t be buying. It’s too much fun coming up with my own.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


It's hard, at some point in a manuscript, to see its weaknesses. As a writer it's hard sometimes to see your own weaknesses. I'm lucky to have an editor who has a strength that is my weakness. One of her strengths is story structure which is always a struggle for me, though I think I'm getting better at it. She has been part of that improvement. Of course I don’t agree with everything she thinks needs work. She wouldn’t expect that. But I’m struck by how many times she’s right. She asks the kind of analytical questions that lead me to plot answers that improve the work.

These kinds of plot questions need to be asked. Not in my first draft since my first drafts are mostly a way for me to enter the story, but in later drafts. Here’s a big plot question (when you’re focusing on that aspect of story): What does this scene accomplish? Just that simple and just that difficult. It’s easy to fool yourself. Well, you might say, the scene reveals my character’s love of meatloaf. But is that really important to the story? If not, even though there’s some good writing in that scene about metaloaf, maybe some very funny and entertaining sentences, you have to consider cutting it. That is very hard, especially when it’s a scene you like and enjoy.

Because we’re writing novels we don’t have to be quite as merciless as the story writer. We have a little room, now and then, in my opinion, to wander slightly, perhaps for humor or to make a general statement about life, but I think my editor’s very smart questions about what is accomplished, scene by scene, to advance the story need to be asked at some point. It’s easy for a story to lose its momentum.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

You Got to be You

The way you see the world and the way you communicate the way you see the world is very closely connected to the voice of any particular manuscript. Even the particular voice of the narrator of your novel sees that particular world in a specific way and communicates it in the novel, BUT this voice is informed by your sensibilities as a writer, too, what might be called the voice behind the voice.

The way you see the world is what is most unique about you as a writer and it is something to be cultivated. Sometimes I think writers suppress this out of fear that their way of seeing the world isn’t what’s selling or fashionable, that it won’t have any interest to readers. How can you know? I don’t think readers really know themselves what they want until they see it. If you persuade them that your particular way of seeing is interesting and unique, they’ll keep reading. Maybe building an audience will take several books if your way isn’t assessable to an audience or is very different, but you have to trust that you’ll eventually reach readers that respond to your vision.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ideas 2

I think novels come from imagination, experience, and memory. Any of these might contribute to the work: start it, push it forward, add layers to it. For me, ideas come from these, but I think I need to define ideas a little before trying to write about them more.

When we talk about ideas, we might be talking about any aspect of writing. What first comes to people’s minds when people talk about their idea for a novel isn’t always the same. Some people might be thinking about a situation and others might be thinking about a theme or setting. Very different. So there are these big ideas that are at the core of a novel, that drive it, and that can come from all kinds of places.

In addition to these big ideas, there are more focused ideas such as those, for instance, about character. You’re thinking about your character and you have ideas about what he does, what he wants, what he fears, and how he fits into the novel. Some people start with character when they start their novel and the character helps ideas grow and develop and helps the author find his story and his way through that story.

Things can, of course, change and this will change your ideas. For example, you think you want to write a novel about loss. Your character’s wife dies and it’s a novel about how he copes with this terrible and difficult situation, but halfway through the novel he meets another woman and he starts to fall for her (Where did she come from? Ah, the mystery of fiction and life.) And his grief begins to fade and he feels amazement and gratitude and guilt, so then the novel becomes about this experience. Maybe the novel then becomes about this whole journey to a new life. (And so the beauty of revision because you’ll have to revise the first part with this revelation in mind because ideas lead to other ideas in a plot. They have to be connected.)

Ideas work on many different levels in a novel. I think it’s helpful to consider this and to think of ways to connect them.

Or so I think today.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Where do ideas come from?

Where do ideas come from?

I like to say I get them in a little store out in West Texas somewhere near Marfa.

I wish.

So where do they come from?

No writer knows. Every writer though has many, many ideas. They come when you’re in the shower, when walking the dog, on the drive to work. Ideas are everywhere. So when someone—and they will if they haven’t already—upon learning you’re a writer says they have A GREAT IDEA FOR YOU, A SURE MILLION SELLER IDEA FOR YOU, and all they want is 50% of the profits when you write the book based on their idea, you can either:
a. laugh in their face
b. explain to them that ideas are the EASY part
c. call all your friends over and laugh in their face
d. laugh silently to youself but try to explain to them that ideas are the EASY part.
e. Pretend you suddenly notice how late it is and run away.

Ideas are the easy part but an idea that actually works for a novel is not so easy. Most ideas aren’t enough. I would say no idea by itself is enough. The novelist Patrick Ness says he waits to write a novel until he has an idea that is strong enough to attract other ideas. I like this notion that you start with one idea and others are attracted to it. Another way of looking at it is that ideas grow off of it, and together they help you fill out the first idea.

One idea isn’t enough. You’ll get to page two or ten or twenty with one idea and then the story will die. You need to be able to attract more ideas, or add other ideas to that idea to develop your story into something substantial enough to become a novel.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Since at the end of last year I was making a plea for including “story” or plot in the family of fictional elements, and to that end maybe exaggerating slightly the emphasis put on language, let me say this year how important language is. Here’s a quote I’ve used before but is, for me, one of the best. Mr. Mark Twain, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening.” That kind of says it all, but here’s a simple example:

I’m walking up a wide path.

I’m walking up a big path.

I’m walking up a huge path.

I’m walking up a large path.

Each of these sentences is the same except for the adjective. To me, though, the first is much stronger than the second, third, and fourth. It gives a specific image of the path while big, huge, and large do not. How a writer says what he or she says, how he or she rewrites to say it with as much clarity and precision as possible, is the foundation of any good story.

Or so I think today.