Monday, December 30, 2013

Poets & Writers: A Resource

A quick share today. If you don't know about it already, the Poets & Writers website is a good resource for writers. I find the Tools For Writers section the most helpful. There, you can find job postings, information on literary agents, impressive lists of lit. mags and small presses, upcoming contests, MFA programs, and even conferences. Among there tools is even a Literary Places Near you feature, which allows users to submit there own suggestions.

I have found their database of literary magazines the most helpful whenever it comes into my head to send out some tattered short story or scrap of poetry I'm tired of kicking around and feel is worth anything. You can search by genre, even sub-genre (if you're into that sort of thing), whether or not the mag or press accepts electronic or simultaneous submissions, the level of magazine circulation, etc. If the number of search results seems intimidating to you (and it certainly can), start by searching for magazines or presses in your area. That's what I did, anyway. But then, maybe you value your short works more than I do, and want to see them situated amongst only the finest and most deserving literary company. That is certainly your prerogative.

Maybe you would like to join in the conversation over in the Connect With Others section. Even if you only use the site for their writing prompts, if you're an aspiring writer and P&W isn't already in your favorites, consider adding it.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Fish Bone Dialogue – When Characters Don't Want the Same Thing

Characters don't always want the same thing, and this comes through in how they talk to each other, or, often enough, past each other. The result can be a conversation that doesn't quite line up, like the ribs of a fish. We experience this ourselves. I say something that you don't want to talk about, so you give a half-hearted response. I say something else along the same lines, and you change the subject.

We tend to avoid disagreements, especially when they could upset relationships. We babble and tip-toe around subjects instead. You'll probably see this on display if you find yourself jammed into a room with your relatives during the Holidays. By way of example, take this excerpt from Hemingway's “Hills Like White Elephants.” An American man and a girl sit down together at a Spanish train station and this happens:

'“What should we drink?” the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.
“It's pretty hot,” the man said.
“Let's drink beer.”
Dos Cerbezas,” the man said into the curtain.
[...]The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I've never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn't have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything.”
The girl looked at the bead curtain. “They've painted something on it,” she said. “What does it say?”
“Anis del Toro. It's a drink.”
“Can we try it?”' 
—(I recommend reading the full texthere, for instance

Your characters do not have to talk in straight lines. They don't have to chase thoughts to their natural conclusions, and they definitely don't have to stay on point. In this excerpt from “Hills,” the characters talk in a circle, from drinks, to an observation by the girl and a snippy exchange, followed by another observation, back to drinks. What makes the exchange interesting is the tension that drives this fish bone dialogue, which we catch a glimpse of in that snippy exchange about white elephants.

This couple isn't happy with each other.  Eventually the man breeches the subject at the heart of their displeasure.  He talks about what he wants to talk about: '“It's really an awful simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It's not really an operation at all.”' This line is at first a mystery to us, but as we read on, we understand the girl is pregnant, and the man is talking her into an abortion. The tension underpinning the entire scene arises because these two characters don't want the same thing. Hemingway doesn't beat us over the head with this fact. He lets his characters speak for themselves, and we pick up on the tension because we're alive.

What is unsaid can be very powerful. We don't usually come right out with hard truths. Often we don't want to admit them even to ourselves. Despite the fact that our man tells his girl, “I don't want you to go through with it if you don't want to,” we know this isn't true, because he comes back to the “operation” again and again, even after the girl begs him to “please stop talking.”

He can't say, “I don't want a baby, I don't want a family, I don't want a wife. I just want to continue our fornication tour of Europe.” They can't have fun any more if he says that, because the girl will know their relationship does not lead to anything.

Try this: write a conversation between two characters, one or both of whom want to avoid a given subject. Maybe a death, an infidelity, God, empty peanut butter jars in the pantry—whatever you like. I don't want to put words on your page, but they should fail, at least in part, or else we won't know what they didn't talk about. Hell, write your own version of “Hills Like White Elephants.”

The personal conflicts in your writing do not all have to be on the scale of “Hills.” Minor problems can be as interesting as those with a serious emotional payload. Be mindful that you can wear readers out with too much tension. But remember, whenever you're trying to write a heavy scene, and you feel you have to tell your reader how very seriously important and emotional what they're reading is, you are probably doing something wrong.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Moment is More Important than the Plot

“Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte... just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour.” —Robert Shaw, Jaws.
Dialogue is something many writers seem to struggle with, published and otherwise. I'm not sure, but I think a big reason for this is because they are caught up in trying to get to the story.

Story in this sense really means the plot. When a writer is trying to move events along from plot point to plot point, however exciting those moments may seem, the dialogue suffers, characters suffers, story suffers. You end up rushing through moments you ought to let linger. You cut short exchanges you ought to let play out more naturally. The word play is crucial here. You must allow yourself to play. That's when you make the most exciting discoveries in your writing, when you're carrying on without a fixed point as your goal and instead dance along the page.

There is an arrogance to writing that all writers deal with. We assume we know what we're doing. We get it in our heads that once we figure out a story, that settles it, and all that remains is to write the thing. We know where we're going and all we have to do is to draw a straight line from here to there. This is an uncompromising lie. You are not embarking upon the composition of a menu. This is not a bullet pointed itinerary you are writing, it's a story. Stories meander. They sway and curve and crash, and we don't know for sure which one they'll do next. That is what makes them exciting. Don't get bogged down in moving things along.

Write a while. Look around. What interests you? What little, idiosyncratic detail would pass by unnoticed by anyone else? Write about it.

Lend this sensibility to your characters. Let them talk to each other. Let them speak for themselves. We want to get to know them. Never mind where the conversation is going. It's right now we're all interested in. The moment is more important than the plot. Don't force words into your characters mouths for your convenience. If anything rings untrue to a character's emotional ark, strike it out. I've written about this before in the context of honesty. Know you can always cut out whatever doesn't inspire.

Need models to set your stock by? Allow your favorite movies and series to furnish them. Listen for when you are the most intrigued. When you are reading, note when the dialogue pulls you into the story. Reflect on how your friends talk to one another. Steal conversations from the cafe. Pay attention. Listen

Some of my recommendations for great dialogue include anything by Steven Brust, the Hawkeye comics by Matt Fraction, and The Owl Service by Alan Garner. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow stories are also competent, and good examples of how sometimes people say things that don’t make a lot of sense but you don’t always have a good chance to ask them to clarify, or it just isn’t worth it.

What’s some of the best dialogue you’ve come across in your reading or otherwise?

Monday, December 9, 2013

Steven Brust Speaks

“As a writer, you will never in your entire career do anything more difficult than finishing your first novel . . . whether it publishes or not. So if you can manage to get to the end, with whatever your particular problem is, once you've done that, everything else you'll do is easy.” –Steven Brust

In this low-key, low-tech, man-of-the-people Q&A, fantasy author Steven Brust shares some of his writing insights. He discusses working through his first novel, how every writer needs a set of lies they tell themselves in order to do their best work, the difficulty of second novels, why every author should read broadly across genres, and a host of other worthwhile considerations for developing fiction writers. The Q&A a few minutes to get going while Steven settles in, but the video is worth watching regardless of what genres you are interested in.

Brust is probably my favorite author. He is the only writer I've come across so far whose books I have to consistently struggle to read slower so that I can enjoy them for that much longer. His Vlad Taltos novels are irresistible. Their sarcastically irreverent, assassin narrator, Vlad, finds himself more often than not in over his head as he contends with the intrigues and dangers of the Dragaeran Empire.

The novels are part fantasy, with distinctly 17th century European touches, and part detective story. However, unlike most detective novels which are strictly by the numbers who-done-it, where's-the-girl cases carried out by otherwise tired loners, Brust endows Vlad with something many of his traditional counterparts lack: a life. Above and beyond the next job, Vlad's actions and ambitions ultimately have consequences. So too do the actions and ambitions of his powerful, sometimes cavalier friends, as well as those closest to him.

Full of rapiers, cloaks, incantations, hard lessons, wise-cracking miniature dragon (basically) familiars, heroics that go unnoticed by mostly everyone, and damned stubborn selfish decisions, Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos novels are really something you aught to read. That is, if any of this sounds like your brand of cool.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Why Workshop

"‘I don't want no help,’ he said. ‘I'm doing all right by myself.’”
–The Misfit, A Good Man is Hard to Find.
There are several good reasons you should be part of a writing workshop, and the most critical ones probably aren't what you think. 

Obviously, in a workshop you get feedback on your writing, and that can be invaluable depending on the group you're stuck with and the instructor.  Unfortunately it seems like the chances of getting a good writing instructor at university are only about 60/40 for, if I'm generous.  This ratio goes down if you're interested in anything other than well crafted, relentlessly mundane, epiphany based short stories.  This is especially the case at schools with creative writing MFA programs.  I don't know.  Some instructors feel they stand atop the tower of academia, guardians of the literary world.  From their sharp perch, they sneer down at anyone not trying to come up the same way as they did.  The letters go to their heads.  Forgive these poor, prestigious invalids.  They know only one way to write.  Their own.  Not all of them are like this, though, so don't despair.  Anyway, getting your work looked at is actually the least reason you should join a workshop.

The real reason is so you can see other peoples' work in process.  At worst you end up with a group that isn't the most critical, or that just isn't into what you're trying to do.  So what?  Unless your writing is a unique and delicate flower that only blooms once in a lifetime, and never in the same country twice, there is plenty of good writing like what you want to do lining the shelves.  Go and find it.  You're in a workshop to watch other writers struggle on the page.  It is your responsibility to look at their work as your own, and figure out where it's good, where it isn't, and how to make it better. 

The reason you should put first drafts in a drawer to cool off is to distance yourself emotionally from the project so that it isn't your writing anymore, it's just the writing.  You join a workshop to get better at exactly this.  You'll be reading work by writers with varied interests and skill sets.  This means you will really have to stretch sometimes to figure out what a story needs, or even what it is trying to do.  You'll start to store up a catalog of common mistakes, and how to avoid them, as well as hopefully a few clever ways to navigate the craft.  Now when you sit down to write you'll catch yourself and say, “No, What's-his-name tried this.  It didn't work for him, why would it for me?  I'll have to find another way.”  Your shelf reading should help supply that other way if it doesn't come up in your writers' circle.

If you're lucky, you will meet a few people—it only takes one—who you connect with on an artistic level.  Doesn't matter if you want to write different kinds of stories, you can challenge each other with your expectations.  What's important is that you have the same drive to improve, and some overlap in what you like to read.  It doesn't take much, but the more the better.  Then you can talk about your favorite stories, written or otherwise, and why they're so good for hours and hours.  You can also lament where they go wrong, probably for even longer.  Now you're writers together.  Misfits.  Writers are always misfits.  You can help each other make the climb.  At worst, you've already started your own little workshop of horrors that will last long after the other class is over.  At best, you've made a real and true friend. 

If you aren't at university now, heading to, or returning, there is still hope.  Community colleges sometimes offer creative writing courses.  There is also such a thing as writing groups.  You can track them down online, at a local bookstore, or anywhere artistic types congregate.  Look for the coffee.  Where you find the brew, you find the writers.

What have been some of your experiences with writing workshops or groups?  Helpful?  Frustrating?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Danger of the Published Author Fantasy

"Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you." –Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Do not let the dream of being a published author get in the way of your writing.  I know it's alluring, that fantasy of sitting at the front of a long line, pen in hand, signing all those fresh copies of your new novel, thanking everyone for their compliments and making just enough small talk about one or the other of your characters or your process to keep the line moving along, but still connect with each of your admiring readers, knowing all the while there's a fat check sitting in your bank account from the advance, and more like it on the way from those already accruing royalties.  I'm writing a book.  I've been writing it for a while.  I know this thought.  But I do not sit down with it at my desk.  
The difference between a drive and a delusion is that a delusion inhibits you.  The danger of this published author fantasy is that sometimes it can get so big in your head, you stop seeing your writing for what it is, and instead only see what you hope it to be.  When you allow yourself to do this, you set yourself up for a painful awakening.  You plow through to the end of a project, finish exhausted, maybe make a few changes, and now you’re ready to shop it around to a few test readers to check a bit of the grammar and give you their general impression before you start sending letters out to agents, and even a few queries to publishers just for good measure.  However, in your heart, you're terrified.  You don't have any idea what you've done.  You hope it's good, but you just don't know.  If any of your writing were good, you wouldn't be able to explain why.
Eventually the inevitable happens.  The hammer falls.  Sure, a few of your friends have given you responses with middling enthusiasm, but then you hear from someone serious.  This someone is going to treat you, not as a friend, but as a writer.  Now you have to face what you have written, and what you have written will not produce long lines of adoring fans.  What you have is a draft, and your work is still very much ahead of you.
The disparity between the fantasy of your writing, in which your first novel is imminent, and the reality of a pockmarked and incomplete draft can kill the dream entirely.  Don't do that to yourself.
My editor, K.P., recently read a manuscript from a friend of hers who fits what I've described.  What he gave her amounts to a detailed outline, really.  He even formatted the pages to the dimensions of a mass-market paperback, which are much smaller than your standard word doc.  She doesn't know how she's going to tell him, but she's not happy.  What he needs isn't an agent.  He doesn't even need her critiques.  What he needs to do is shove his manuscript in a drawer for three to six months, and only take it out again when he can look at it with fresh eyes and a cold, calculating demeanor, ready to figure out what he's done, learn from it, and move forward.  
Whether he tries to improve that story by re-writing it, or throws it back in the drawer and starts on the next one, it doesn't matter.  What matters is that he's ready to write.  You always have to sit down ready to write.  That's what writers do.  It's about the work, the pleasure of developing a story that excites you.  Write until you're finished, then write the next one.  You'll know you're finished when you know what you've done.
Of course a million dollar signing deal would be lovely, but that's business.  That's down the road.  Where you are right now is art.  Art is about making things, not lines of eager faces and an uncapped pen.
'til next time. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"City on Fire," a Debut Novel, Fetches Nearly $2 Million (click for article)

"Garth Risk Hallberg's novel took the publishing industry by storm last week and provides evidence of a resurgence of long fiction." -, New York Times

This is my old writing teacher's stupid, talented, and now apparently rich son.  He wrote a big, ugly, 900 page New York City in the 70's monster, and seeing as how big books are big business these days, swarms of maniac publishers, incised by the immense weight and girth of young Hallberg's manuscript, bit, clawed, and clubbed each other over the head for the privilege of standing atop that sodden heap of their fellow tradesmen and dumping buckets of bloody cash all over the emerging author.  

The news of this publishing baptism has brought out the darker aspects of my admittedly flawed personality. At my best I am sweet and charming, serene and charitable. Why, I might even hold the door for a complete stranger. But when I reflect on this news, this damned incredible news, all I want to do is smash furniture, and bark and growl. The worst of it is that Garth is nine years my senior at thirty-four. Were our ages closer, it would be a great relief. I could lay my writing aside and hurl myself out of a window knowing I made the only choice available to me. But this near decade distance between us paralyzes me with a fools hope and leaves me to suffer. 

I hope I don't soon run into Bill. I would have to assault him with profanity just to beat back his fatherly pride. That bastard. That damn, marvelous bastard, and his marvelous son. Well, I won't buy this gilded book. That much is for sure. Not on your life.

Might borrow it from the library, though.  Or more likely a friend, judging as the publisher's clearly anticipate every third person in the country will own a copy by the end of next year.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Cut the Crap

            “What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.” —Alfred Hitchcock.

Sometimes the best thing you can do for your writing is cut.  This isn't because less is more, though there is a lot to be said for concise writing, especially when you want a scene or a moment to have impact.  I often find myself muddling through mundane routines in my characters' lives.  I end up writing stage directions, which I doubt would be interesting to a reader, because they bore me.  There is nothing worse for a project than getting bored with your own writing.  I usually fall into this wandering because I'm trying to figure out what happens next, or, if I know that already, what happens in the meantime.  I end up following the characters around, hoping they’ll do something worthwhile.
Here's an example.  My protagonist runs into a woman he knows downtown.  She's attractive.  They duck into a diner, have a short conversation pertaining to the story.  From there, she gives him a lift back to his apartment.  They pull up in front of his building, she turns off the car, he says something maybe, she says something, someone says something about being hungry, I don't know, but they end up in his apartment.  Story continues.  The important and interesting sections of this narrative thread are the run in, the conversation, and the two of them in that apartment, because, remember, she is attractive.  Everything else is unnecessary.  Unless I can extend to those connective beats some kind of character insight or color, they just weigh the story down.
These moments can also be damn hard to write.  As you can probably tell from my little sketch, I never figured out what the hell the two of them were supposed to say to each other.  I didn't know how to get them upstairs without forcing dialog down their throats, so I cut it out.  From the diner, I spare a few words on the car and the music this woman listens to (a bit color), and then like that, they're in the apartment.  
This jump hopefully excites the reader, because the story is progressing (in this case towards a potentially heated situation).  Also, this gives them a chance to read into what's not on the page and prescribe that in-between content based on what they already know about the characters.  In a small way, they get to participate in the story, and that is gratifying.  We are all used to doing this, and a lot, because we all more or less grew up watching television and movies.  If you watched a movie that kept the camera glued to its characters as they maneuvered from point A to B down every hallway, pausing to close every door behind them, etc, you would be bored to tears.
It is critically important as a writer to constantly think about how much of the scene you are writing needs to be there.  Can you justify what is on the page?  What does it do for your story, and would anyone miss it if you took it out?  Asking yourself these questions forces you to recognize, and hopefully create, the pieces of your story that matter, and helps you limber up your writing by brushing aside all those fragments that do not.
image. from Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Being a Developing Writer: Write Every Day

“When I'm writing, I write every day. It's lovely when that's happening.” --Raymond Carver
All writers are developing writers, provided they approach their craft with sincerity. Invariably, a common mark among old masters is a searching quality to their work. They keep developing, even if only minutely. Art doesn't stand still. The exceptions to this are hacks, obviously, and workman like writers that churn out a new book (essentially the same book) about every year. Even very good writers can spin their wheels and produce middling works. That's not the problem. That's another issue. Leave it for now. The all important difference between the bad writing of a hack, and that of an otherwise good writer is that searching quality. You've got to want to be better.

So you've been doing this writing thing for a little while, or maybe you've just started, and it's fun, but it's also really challenging, it's frustrating, even when you write something and you feel a little bit good about it, you still have this sinking feeling that it's actually terrible, and when you read back over your work, other than the fact that you wrote it, it doesn't do much for you. You look around and all you see is fully stocked shelves of successful writers who are all better than you. You want to write as well as they do. What do you do?

You have to write every day.

This is important for two reasons. The first is focus. You have to consistently get into, not just a creative head space, but a learning one as well. You've got to start to figure out the whole writing storycraft thing, and that takes a lot of consistent effort. Otherwise its like trying to learn a foreign language by only studying flashcards occasionally. It won't work. You've got to soak yourself in your art. The second reason you have to write every day if you want to get better is because, as you probably already know, writing can tough emotionally, and so you have to make it a habit. You can't give your scumbag brain any room to distract you. There's no, “maybe I feel like writing today.” You're going to write today, so it doesn't matter how you feel about it. Shut up, and sit down. The nice thing about this approach is you'll start to feel better about your writing, because it stops being a task and starts just being a thing you do.

NaNoWriMo is great for this, but if you're serious about become a better writer, the push has to last more than a month. You can throw the whole word count quota out the window. What matters is that you're spending at least an hour every day trying to figure this thing out. If all you can spare some days is fifteen minutes, that's fine. Don't beat yourself up, just maintain the habit.

I was wrong about this at one point. I got complacent. I suppose I was burned out. At least I wasn't wrong by myself. I was standing at the edge of ECU's campus with a writer friend, Stephen Mason, after our fiction workshop had gotten out for the night. I had said I didn't write all the time, and didn't worry about it anymore either. I didn't feel like it was necessary. Stephen, the fool following the fool, agreed with me, telling me how he read Raymond Carver said he didn't write all the time either. Raymond Carver wrote when he felt like writing, and that worked just fine for him. It was at that moment that some fat, all-American youth, to whom a well meaning but utterly misled person had evidently tried to teach the use of a razor that morning, leaned his red face out of a passing truck window and yelled at us, enigmatically, “Hey, fagots,” and smiled.

I can't speak for Steve, but I know I'm still confused about what he wanted. Friendship I suppose. Our conversation broke up after that, and that's too bad, because if Steve and I had only not been interrupted by that baffling animal (no doubt lost and afraid himself, being so far from home), it might have occurred to one or the other of us that neither of us were Raymond Carver. We were still developing writers. Still are.  The best gains I've made during this process have always been when I'm writing all the time. And that's also when it's been the most fun.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Assignment #1: Write What's There

“Nick [. . .] walked down the railroad track to the bridge over the river. The river was there.” -Ernest Hemingway.
My first fiction workshop in college was taught by a guy named Bill Hallberg.  Bill loved Hemingway.  Said he could read A Movable Feast in the time it took him to do his laundry.  Our first assignment in his class was just that, an assignment, not a story.  If we stumbled on a story, or something like one, that was fine, but that wasn't the point.  (As a side note, I'm sick right now, so forgive me if any of this comes out sideways).

The assignment was simply this: write a scene from your life.  It didn't even have to happen to you.  This can be something you saw waiting for the bus.  It can be a string of little happenings throughout the day.  It can be as simple as a setting.  Don't try to write a scene with emotional significance.  Don't try to dig into the heads of people around you.  Just write what's there.  No more than 2,000 words, and as few as 100, if you like.   

Bill loved the impressionists, and we used to talk about art in class some of the time.  Artists do this same exercise.  If you're learning how to draw, you don't draw what you think an arm looks like, because you'll get it all wrong, or you won't draw any two the same.  You draw what you see.  That's it.  You look at your model or your photograph and you follow the light and the lines as they are.  You don't over think it.  Don't over complicate what you're doing.  Slow down and draw what you see.

Sure, this is basically an exercise in the precision of concrete details, and probably observation and focus.  I'm not saying you should write like Hemingway, and I doubt that's what Bill was suggesting either.  But when you do this, when you fashion a person or a moment without adornment, without any qualifiers, or rhetorical tricks, when you just show the thing as it is, and you're brave enough to let the details speak for themselves, something comes through.  Maybe that something is a glimmer of what it's like to be a human being.

Try it.

If you need help, read all of Hemingway's In Our Time.  That should get you started.  It did me.

Here's a piece: 
Chapter II
Minarets stuck up in the rain out of Adrianople across the mud flats.  The carts were jammed for thirty miles along the Karagatch road.  Water buffalo and cattle were hauling carts through the mud.  No end and no beginning.  Just carts loaded with everything they owned.  The old men and women, soaked through, walked along keeping the cattle moving.  The Maritza was running yellow almost up to the bridge.  Carts were jammed solid on the bridge with camels bobbing along through them.  Greek cavalry herded along the procession.  Women and kids were in the carts crouched with mattresses, mirrors, sewing machines, bundles.  There was a woman having a kid with a young girl holding a blanket over her and crying.  Scared sick looking at it.  It rained all through the evacuation.
Painting by Monet 

Monday, October 28, 2013

An Exercise in Empathy

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”  -Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
I don't know much about Jim Shepard's writing, just like I still don't know much about Elmore Leonard's, but the man seems to have a good notion of what writing is about. He gives a fair enough introduction of himself in the video, so I'll leave the substance of that task to him, save to highlight that he is a creative writing professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, and writes largely historical novels and stories that focus closely on an eclectic group of subjects and people, such as the executioner in charge of the Reign of Terror. This requires him to do a hell of a lot of research, and then leap from the high ledge of raw facts and recorded testimony to make the story his own. Essentially he deals in taking artistic liberties.

“The first worry writers have,” Shepard says, “when they consider working with something like 'real material', or historical material, has to do with the issue of authority. As in, 'Where do I get off writing writing about that?'”

Shepard's response? “Where do you get off writing about anything?”

Everything we write about is a stretch of some kind or another. The same can be said when we read, because we are necessarily dealing with experiences outside of our own. This gets to the heart of what writers do and what readers look for. It's all an exercise in empathy. The best writers, the really best writers, make this exercise a delight for themselves and their readers.


Shepard's recommendation for fiction that makes an exhilarating use of history: Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Youcenar

Monday, October 21, 2013

Leave it at the Foot of the Mountain

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
            -Franklin D. Roosevelt
Writing is a silly thing to be afraid of, but there it is. Sometimes I hate it. I hate feeling this weight that is “the project” hanging over my head, blocking the sun and threatening to crush me some time soon. When I first sit down to write, the weight lands on my shoulders, daring me to move, daring me to be good.

And so I put it off. I wait. “No, not just yet,” I say. “I don't quite feel it yet. Another half an hour or so, then maybe I'll start.” I fumble around for something else to do with my free time, some other way to be productive and get myself to feel like I'm making progress, to put myself in a positive frame of mind. A lot of the time I am unsuccessful and just end up fumbling, not finding anything to settle on. Then I feel a little panicked. My mind spreads out like a patient etherized upon a table. Everything clogs up. I think about writing again, but, “No, how could I write in this state? My mind isn't focused.” Then maybe I watch something to try and calm down. Reading might actually be a better antidote, and sometimes I do read, but at the end of an episode, or chapter, or worse, a string of youtube videos, after all that I am, at best, back where I started. Except now it's at least two hours later, and what have I really done with my time? I wasn't productive, I felt emotionally sick, and because of this, didn't actually enjoy what I read or watched. Now I feel personally like a waste of time. Great.

It's stupid. I'm stupid. Why do this to myself? Why go through the same cycle again?

Right now I'm writing this instead of working on my novel. I picked up my laptop to write, and this happened. I felt like I needed to examine the state while I was in it, to share it, because maybe this sounds familiar to you. What do you do to fix this problem?

You write.

Full stop.

You shut up, you open the doc, and you just write. What are you afraid of? Hmm? Let's examine that. Bad writing, right? Yeah, but it's not just that. What's going on is slightly more nuanced. I'm afraid of not good writing. Of lack-luster, dull drudgery. He went here and he did this then he did this . . . I'm afraid of sitting there feeling worthless as I plunk down one uninspired line after the other. In the years I've spent learning how to write, this has been a very real experience. But every time I sit down and just write, once I get started I always feel better, because I'm making progress—some kind of progress. Why won't that sink in?

If you ever feel like I do, recognize when you fall into this pattern. Step back. Make some space, and say to yourself, “There I go again. There's that stupid pattern.” Now decide to change. Don't run away. Whatever it is, deal with the problem directly. Realize, “I'm avoiding writing right now. Writing is what I want to be doing,” and then do it.  Don't think so god damn much.  Drop the weight.  Fuck fear.

Write. You'll feel better.  

Monday, October 14, 2013


“I had to dream awake”
         -The Frames
Writing is a mental game. Whether you pile up a lot of interesting words and let that guide parts of your story, or you construct a moment and hunt for the words to do it justice, in the end we're still just talking about a lot of words. And yet anybody who has ever started a serious writing project knows the pain of staring empty-headed at an equally empty page. It doesn't matter if you're on page 600 or page 1, this is a very real and daunting challenge that can slow the whole process down to a soul crushing crawl. So what the hell do you do to get yourself out of it?

Try this. Stop, relax, and think, but go somewhere else to do it.

'Prewriting' is an absolute misnomer. Most people seem to think you prewrite before you begin a project, and then you sit down without ever looking back and fritter away until the thing is done. I don't even think of it as prewriting, I think of it as sketching. Dry on ideas before, during, or after a draft? Sit down, let your mind breathe, and sketch a bit.

Here's what I do. I turn my computer off and I go sit down somewhere else. This is a really basic mental trick. The goal is to break the unfocused, no ideasy, falling feeling I get sitting in my writing chair without writing for too long. I have a pad and a pen with me. I have a pen because I'm not going to be erasing anything. If I write something dumb (often I insist on it), I can just scratch it out. I want to work dirty here. This is me kicking around in my workshop. Anyway, writing is actually the last thing on my mind. I'm sitting down to think. We all start writing because we tire of only day dreaming, or having thoughts pop through our head like sparks form a downed power line. Well, this little process is a return to form. Its just a bit of directed day dreaming.

Thomas Edison used to do this same sort of exercise to work his way through problems and come up with new inventions. He used to sit with two tin pans on the floor and ball bearing in his hands. He would relax, clear his head out, quiet down. Then he would start turning over whatever he had laying around in his brain. If he started to drift off, the ball bearings would drop into the pans and wake him up. So there he would be, hopefully with a clear head and maybe a new idea. I think Edison's routine was a little more meditative than I'm suggesting, but it is equally as apt, and probably worth practicing.

Start asking yourself some questions and feel your way around a few answers. There's no stakes here, you're just sketching, so anything is fair game. Sound it out. Short term, long term, it doesn't matter. Make a few choices, follow the line of thought, and if you don't like where it leads, cross that one off and start in on another, stealing any of your own ideas and mixing them up any which way you like. Don't be afraid to change your mind. Write a bunch of words down about how a scene should feel, or a setting, or a character. Which words stick? If you get some lines that feel right as you build a particular scene in your mind, jot those down and keep thinking. Stay focused. The point is to let your mind range, but not wander.

Now that you've got a few ideas you like, and a better sense of where you're going, at least for the moment, you should feel more confident sitting down at the keyboard. Now just write it out, and know if it doesn't land quite right, you can just revise it later. Tune up the sketch, yeah? Better by degrees.  

Try it.

In reference to today's quote, if you haven't already, you should really get to know Glen. Seriously.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Honesty is the Only Policy

“He wanted to dream a man. He wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality.” –Jorge Luis Borges, The Circular Ruins
I want to talk a little more about characters, if that’s alright.  I've been thinking a fair bit about them lately, especially since I've been reading this great comic K.P. turned me on to.  Maybe I can get her to write a review about it sometime when she isn't being crushed by a T.S. Elliot paper and 100 pages of T.E. Hulme reading.  As it stands, she is T.H.E. busy.  Anyway . . .

Characters are the vehicles of your story.  They aren't just our point of entry into what’s going on, they are what’s going on.  People want things, and do things, and say things, and feel things, and we come along for the ride.  There are plenty of short stories in which this is not the case.  Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Bradbury’s “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains,” and that other one what I can’t remember the name of.  Sure.  Short stories, like poetry, are their own animal.  There are also books – plenty of fantasy and sci/fi come to mind – that are much more concerned with the place, or time period, tech, or magic system, etc . . .   If you read either of these genres you can probably come up with about half a dozen examples off the cuff.  But these stories work better, in every instance, when they have a cast of interesting characters to support them, or at least competent characters who don’t muddle up our enjoyment of all those cool protocannons and silicon-nanoid symbiot-suits. 

How do you write compelling characters?  That’s a pretty high level question, and I’m probably never going to be able to explain it satisfactorily.  Let’s save a painful, technical struggle and just say they have to be dynamic and seem like they actually inhabit the world you’re writing in.  This place you've put them?  They live there.  And their lives spill over onto the page whenever you’re looking at them, and continue whenever you’re not. 

Do not write plot device characters whose purpose is to move the story along and make things easier on you.  Need a little tension?  Have that crazy character do something stupidly bad.  Want this character to be endearing?  Make that character terribly obnoxious, and have this character put up with her, or tell her off, depending.  No.  Bad writing 101.  No.  Your characters need to have their own purpose, irrespective of what you think you want them to do.  They should make things difficult for you, not easy, because you’ll discover they want things you hadn't planned on. 

First set in stone, no negotiable rule of write club: No one is an expert at this.  No one knows all, or even most of what should happen when they sit down to a new project, or even when they sit down each subsequent writing day.  Plan all you want, the name of the game is discovery and revision.  You try something, it doesn't seem quite right, it doesn't seem true to the characters, too cheap, too on the nose, or just uninteresting, what do you do?  You go back and go in a different direction.  But hey, don’t feel bad.  Now you know where not to go.  Now maybe you recognize the next time you start to veer in that direction.  This is the hardest part, the admitting to yourself “I think I've gone the wrong way.  I have to go back.  I don’t think this is it.”  But it’s easier if you can say it now instead of waiting for someone else to say it later.  Don’t fret.  You’re a writer.  Writers write.  This is what you do.  And it’s hard, but it’s also damn fun.

Remember, when it comes to writing, you’re only wasting time if you’re not . . . or if you’re not being honest with yourself.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Take Your Time with Characters

“I am a stranger in a strange land.”
                -Charlton Heston, The Ten Commandments
Try not to front load your story with facts and exposition about your characters.  What they’re all about, where they come from, the 1-2-3 of what a reader needs to know to understand them, you will have plenty of time for that.  Let who your characters are and what they've been through become a mystery that unfolds in the course of the story.  This will give your readers another reason to turn the page.  It is no different from meeting a person in your own life.  We get to know people gradually over hours of interaction and conversation, and if we are talking with an interesting person who we discover we like, this is a conversation that we hope will not soon stop.  Don't rob your readers of that chance at discovery by telling them everything up front.

I wish I had a lot of really good examples handy of books that do this exceptionally well, and books that don’t.  I can think of one manuscript in particular that does a great job revealing character relationships gradually through a lot of flashbacks, playing up the mystery approach, but subtly.  Unfortunately the manuscript hasn't been published, so what good does that do any of us? 

A severe example from film is Citizen Kane, where the whole movie turns on the question of what happened to shape the character of a rich newspaper mogul whose final words of regret were “rosebud.”  Dickens’ A Christmas Carol takes the same form.  As Dickens’ ghost story unfolds, we learn about the complexity of Scrooge’s character, or at least his past, the reliving of which brings the old miser crashing into an epiphany.  In these stories, the mystery of the leading character is a propelling force of the narrative.  The questions are writ large: why is Kane so distraught at his death?  Why ‘rosebud’?  How does a mean bastard like Scrooge get to be who he is?  Was he always that way?

The key, in any case, is that these questions linger.  They aren't dashed off in brief.  Any time we meet a new character, we all ask the same question, like our old mothers or children at the movies: “Who is that?”  As an author, you ask yourself the same question when anyone new shows up on your page.  Resist the urge to answer that question in detail right then and there.  It reads the same as a long interruption of all the interesting things actually going on in the movie while you try to explain to your mom everything she needs to know about a given character.  You both end up missing a lot, and take the wind out of any character revelations to come.  When you write these interruptions, the effect is worse.  Now you don't diminish the impact of later revelations.  Those moments never happen, and characters can feel stagnant.

This character business is one of the things writers talk about when they talk about showing instead of telling.  You don't have to have all of the answers at once.  In fact, that's preferable. So when you’re writing and that little voice in the dark pipes out, “Who is that?” remember what you actually say at the movies.  “Wait and see.”

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Bradbury on Hygiene for Writers

“Books are smart and brilliant and wise.”
          -Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury speaks beautifully about writing and reading. His love for stories and his dedication to the craft of being an author come through loud and clear in this 2001 address. In general, I think this guy is great to listen to. His voice and verbal quirks will stick around in head for hours, mnah?

Here, Bradbury prescribes a program for writers to follow, “hygienically speaking.” On top of giving you an array of excellent authors whom you must read, he speaks about being an author, and explains very succinctly why you must live in the library. Writer's block? He has the cure for you. Do yourself a favor, settle down and lend an old master an hour of your time. You'll thank yourself for it, ah?

Friday, September 6, 2013

Leonard's List

“The code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules.”
            -Captain Barbbosa, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Elmore Leonard wrote a lot of books. He started with Westerns, but eventually ended up writing crime and suspense novels, some of which he's won awards for—which I guess means somebody liked them, but not just ordinary groundlings. A whole heap of books, and I've never read a single one. Leonard died a few weeks ago. I think I'll have a look at his work.

The lurid covers have starkly printed titles: City Primeval . . . Tishomingo Blues . . . Stick. How could anyone say no to that level of raw pulp fiction? I mean, Pagan Babies for Christ sake. Even if that is bad it has to be good! But I don't really want to talk about genres I'm interested in right now, or the fact that everything is genre—so button your lip, literary snobs. That's right, I'm talking to you missy-sir “I read Literature, not genre fiction.” No, we'll do that another time. I want to share Leonard's 10 rules of writing. They show his pension for muscular prose.

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

These rules are extracted from his essay on the subject. You can read more of what he has to say about each of them here, at a better blog than this one.

Saturday, August 31, 2013


Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.
                    —Mick Jagger, “Sympathy for the Devil”
It's Tom, actually.  Tom Mock.  No great mystery there.  After all, my name is printed at the bottom of this post and elsewhere on the page, but I'll share that transparency with Sympathy, which is also less of a riddle than the opening lines suggest.  My jazz friends call me Thelonious some of the time.  If you have any appreciation for jazz, you'll probably get that.  If not, that's fine.  Most jazz jokes are way inside anyway, and not funny, and also not jokes.  Hmm...  Anyway.

I write, I read, and I absolutely love stories.  That's mostly what I plan to talk about here.

I'm currently working on the sixth draft of my first novel.  This will be the third and final re-write.  After a few rounds of revision, it's on to the next one.  I started the project my senior year in High School, thanks to the support of a dedicated, and deeply subversive teacher who let me write in his office instead of go to a “real” class, and I've been working on it off and on all through college.  I'm happy with how it is finally coming together.

I live in North Carolina, and I got my MA in English from NC State University in 2012.  I say “got” instead of “earned” because, even though I went to all the classes, wrote a decent thesis, and had good grades, I don't feel I got all I could have out of the experience.  Not that I didn't learn a lot—and I mean a lot.  No-no. You don't read Moby Dick in grad school and come out the other end of that voyage the same, or you can call me Ishmael!