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.