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.