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