Category Archives: Writing Advice

Post #29: Revising Blue Dot

Been spending my writing time the past two weeks beginning revisions on my new novel, Blue Dot, which I’ve been dubbing a horror/sci-fi mash-up.  For the uninitiated, I wrote the first draft of Blue Dot in a month during National Novel Writing Month, in which participants take on the challenge of producing a 50,000 word manuscript in 30 days.

Revising a novel is a daunting and exhilarating experience.  Exhilarating because it’s hard not to be thrilled by reading over a new creation, discovering some wondrous artifact that you recognize and yet, in mellowing, has taken on its own scent.  There’s an undeniable thrill in imagining that what you’ve created is fresh and bold and impossible to put down.  Daunting because, as Stephen King puts it, I’m still writing “with the door closed.”  No one but me has seen a word of Blue Dot and so, in spite of what I might think about it, and acknowledging that I’m the most biased person in the room and the least likely to know what’s truly wrong with it, its potential as shit that nobody has smelled yet, is very very high.

I envisioned a lean, fast paced novel (Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was very much on my mind) and the book is mostly supporting this vision as I go back through it.  More than ever before, I’m trying to stay out of the way of this one, to let it take whatever form it sees fit, rather than trying to impose my will on it or throttle it until it’s the best book I want it to be.  This was one of the unknown benefits of writing something so fast.  Its creation was so immediate, so dream like in pace that in many ways it feels like it wrote itself, like I was merely court reporter doing furious transcription.  The book wasn’t victim to my prodding literary whims or insecurity.  I didn’t have time to wonder whether it was any good or not, nor to worry about whether readers would like it, and in this, the novel, at least with the door still closed, feels liberated.  I’ve been cleaning up small matters, inconsistencies in voice and plot, reconciling some over-complications, and trying to make it cohere.

But a novel nobody’s read yet has two lives, and once you’ve given it to others and solicited their feedback, danger runs high.  Kill your darlings they say.  Then kill them again.

For now, I’m keeping the door closed  a little while longer. I’m looking forward to sharing it with some trusted friends soon, and then it’ll be time to sharpen my hatchet and be cold and exacting as I come to terms with all the holes I’ve left in the plot and the characters and begin trying to make the book whole, but for now the reverie of a book that’s still taking shape, becoming its own being with only me to water and nurture it, feels like watching wonderful flowers bloom in slow motion.

Post #25: Circumstance

Ask 10 random people what “Setting” is and they’ll tell you something resembling the following:

The Time and Place a story occurs.

Not so fast.

A third element of setting worth celebrating, though oft neglected, is that of Circumstance, which I humbly submit is actually its most interesting and durable attribute.

In a park at dusk is a time and a place.  But in a park at dusk the moment a war breaks out between two warring factions of squirrels known as the “Corns” and the “Oaks,” that’s another thing entirely.

In Ann Patchett’s lovely novel Bel Canto, a group of distinguished guests is held hostage at a vice president’s manor in a small South American country.   The setting (the house) is, frankly, not particularly interesting.  It’s fine–it’s a big house, lush, and a marked contrast to the roughness of the terrorists who live in the jungles surrounding the city which plays up the unjust ills of the class system in the third world–but they could have been many places and the same set of events (mostly) could have occurred.  What makes her use of setting noteworthy is the circumstance of music.

The group of people had congregated there to celebrate the birthday of a rich Japanese businessman named Mr. Hozikawa.  He’d been enticed there on the promise of his favorite opera soprano, Roxanne Koss, who’d been paid to come and sing five arias to celebrate his birthday.  The plot–a prolonged hostage/terrorist set-up–becomes infected with the presence of music and informs everything that happens.  In the presence of beautiful music, strangers declare their love for one another, friendships are formed, time drifts as hostage and terrorist alike are swept away by the universal tide of music.

As the book begins, we already picture the conclusion, the one Die Hard has taught us to expect.  We meet the standard cast of characters: the defiant vice president who initially stands firm, the gruff and intelligent terrorist leaders all generically called “General,” the cool headed intermediary negotiator (Swiss, no less), the intelligent Japanese translator, child terrorists with guns and hair triggers who appear ignorant, angry, and afraid.  And yet, Patchett must have planned, or decided along the way, that the circumstance of being around music, and not just any music but THE soprano of her generation was far more interesting than mere life and death, and to make that the focus of her story and the engine driving her narrative.

Half way through the book, one of the hostages, a Japanese diplomat, begins playing piano on a whim; the original accompanist has already died from lack of insulin.  Roxanne then begins practicing with him every day and they form a duo.  Soon she begins to give small concerts to which there are curtain calls and bows and applause.  She sends out for sheet music to expand her repertoire.  The terrorists assent to her whims, treat her differently because she’s famous, yes, but more so because they are completely astonished and overwhelmed by the power of her singing.  She falls in love with Mr. Hozikawa, who she was brought there to entertain, and he is snuck up to her room in the night by one of the female terrorists, who herself has fallen in love with Mr. Hozikawa’s translator, Gen, who has become the official translator for pretty much everyone.  Soon after that, on a morning Roxanne has slept in after (presumably) wild hostage sex with Mr. Hozikawa and therefore isn’t there to fill the morning with music, to compensate, one of the young male terrorists, while wielding a semi-automatic rifle, begins singing arias a capella from memory, and turns out to have a world class voice.  Roxanne then becomes, wait for it–his teacher.  During all this, vast meals are prepared.  Terrorist generals play civil games of chess with hostages.  The vice president finds a strange love of domesticity and keeps the house immaculate, dusting and sweeping and discovering the joys of weeding a garden.  Multiple men declare their love for Roxanne, not able to resist their hearts.  For four and a half months things progress in this way, the situation in the house becoming so self-sufficient, so insular, so normal that both hostage and terrorist lose complete track of time.   And reality.  No one seems to remember that half of them are holding guns and it’s all going to go tits up in the end.

The beautiful thing is that we accept it.  Believe that this is probably what must happen during every prolonged hostage situation.   The ending is harsh and fast and, to me, was very predictable.  The only failing here on Patchett’s part is that the ending undermines the glorious fantasia that’s just transpired, reminds us at the last moment of the extent to which her elaborate conceit (maybe) wasn’t all that possible after all.

Patchett’s created a fantasy that reads like realism, which is really something.  And the thing that made it all possible, was music.  The circumstance of music.   What was primed to be another story of terrorists and hostages becomes one about the miraculous power of voices in flight and fingers in motion, of love and community, how quickly these things can take over and how suddenly they can be taken away.

Post #19: Best of Lists and Middle Class White Guys

Here’s a couple of articles I found thought provoking.  The first, by Roxane Gay, examines the “Best of…” lists that have become such a part of what establishes literary “excellence.”  Gay makes a compelling case regarding their legitimacy and usefulness.

http://therumpus.net/2011/12/toward-a-more-complete-measure-of-excellence/

The second is by Benjamin Hale, a writer who I was at Bread Loaf with, though never really got to know.  Mostly I saw him across the barn, or at the salad bar.  But his essay from Fortnight is edgy and though I have some issues (at times) with his tone in this piece, which tackles issues of authenticity and diversity, he’s a talented writer and shedding light on a question that I relate to whether I like it or not: do middle class white guys have anything to say in their writing?  A (mostly) closeted fear of mine has been that I’ve lived far too good and steady a life to offer anything significant to the literary sphere.   Perhaps this comes from actual insecurity about a serious issue, or perhaps it’s more a response to cultural mythology, much of which proves to be majorly suspect when you really start looking.

http://fortnightjournal.com/benjamin-hale/227-a-bourgeois-writer-in-america.html

Enough out of me.  Read.

Post #17: Crawling Through the Nearest Window

Doing National Novel Writing Month is exhilarating.  I think this is mostly because I’ve never written, outside of education, for a capital “D” Deadline and the need to complete X quantity by Y date is a utilitarian sort of enterprise that’s added a different timbre to this writing experience than others whose end point hinges on a self-imposed deadline.

I’ve decided that NANOWRIMO is more about stamina than it is about creativity.  Not to shit on creativity.  Not at all.  But the truth is that the writers who have the best chance of starting and finishing a task like NANOWRIMO are those not necessarily with the keenest imaginations, but with the deepest well of endurance.  Those who can follow that sage piece of writing advice that I sometimes think is the only truly useful one: ass in chair.

Writing on a deadline makes you solve problems quickly.  My analogy is that when your story runs into a wall, find and crawl through the nearest window. Can’t find a window?  Tough.  Invent one.  I’m writing a sci-fi/horror mash-up because it sounded like a novel (pun so very much intended) change to my usual subject matter (realistic literary fiction) that would breathe enough fresh wind into my sails to make it to the finish line.  What I failed to realize is that genre writing is a lot harder than I thought it was.

Of course, all kinds of writing are difficult in their own way, but what I’m talking about is closer to the necessity in genre to respect the beginning-middle-end story structure.  I’m not writing a book about an existential crisis that doesn’t need to have an ending to be considered successful.  The plot is front and center this time out and the plot needs to, perhaps above all things, make sense to the reader.  And not sense as in “real,” but sense as in “consistent” and “logical.”  There’s a difference.

Consider The Catcher in the Rye.  In Salinger’s classic, one need not believe that the things that Holden does are the only things that could have happened.  For instance, after Holden’s conversation with the nuns in the diner, we don’t feel the need to make the meet-up logical or the basis to judge what happens next.  It may affect the next action, but it doesn’t have to.  Nor does the book have to really go anywhere, to end up someplace in order to be a great book, which is, of course, why it doesn’t.  For Christ’s Sake, the book’s final image is a kid on a merry go round!  In many ways this is exactly what makes a book like Catcher so great and so lasting–it prizes emotion and character above action.  And, quite frankly, character is more interesting.

But it all depends on how you look at it.  Seen through certain eyes, too large an emphasis on character could be a liability.  Most people I know who don’t like Catcher don’t like it because they don’t like Holden, not because “nothing happens.”   And if they don’t like it because nothing happens, well, they should probably put down Salinger and read Blue Dot, my NANOWRIMO book.  Because, let me tell you, all kinds of things are “happening” in my book.

But, of course, making things happen is its own kind of problem.  One problem being that the “happenings” have different rules in a plot driven piece than in a character driven piece.  Not dramatically different, but different all the same.  In genre, the cause and effect sequence needs to be cleaner, leaner, and ultimately, more satisfying to the reader.  After all, that’s what you’re selling them.  No one wants to buy tickets to the circus only to find, after the lights have dimmed and the curtains have closed, that they’re actually at an antique show.  It’s false advertising.  In filmic parlance, you might compare the ending of Die Hard to the ending of the last season of The Sopranos.  If Die Hard had ended with a long, slow fade out on the bloodied face of John Mclaine before his final show down with Hans and his reunion with his wife, and we were given no closure, no sense that the good guy had prevailed or that the estranged couple had re-united, myself, and a lot of other late 80’s Bruce Willis fans, would have wanted their money back.  The Sopranos could get away with such an ambiguous ending because the show was always more about Tony than it was about what Tony was doing.  Die Hard is about a guy too, but for that story to make sense to us, that guy needs to always be doing things that lead places.

I guess what I’m saying is that I choose a genre piece for NANOWRIMO because I thought it would liberating, and perhaps easier, to write.  But I’m realizing now this was a false assumption.  Genre isn’t harder, but it sure as hell isn’t much easier.  Which leads back to the earlier point that all kinds of writing are hard.

A problem for me is that I’m not used to writing plots that need to add up so neatly and my characters keep trying to stop my story and let themselves come front and center.  Part of me feels like they’re stalling because they don’t know what to do next.  I’m on track to finish my book on time, or at least get to 50,000 words on time, but right now the ending keeps getting further away.  And the further away it gets, the more I’m getting the feeling that Blue Dot may just be the world’s first alien invasion story that ends with a kid on a merry go round.

Post #6: Revision and the Clock

A writing teacher once told me that you know a piece is done when you can’t stand to look at it anymore.  For a long time, I thought that was about the best writing advice I’d ever heard; it distilled a lot of my own beliefs about revision to a luscious sound byte.  Though, as I’ve progressed in my own work, I’ve become less and less confident that it’s fully true.  I do still feel that the diligent and dedicated writer’s gut is a useful measure of a story’s relative “doneness,” but I’ve also started to see a broader, longer, and more methodical approach to revision creeping into my work.

Enter Alan Heathcock.

I met short story writer Alan Heathcock at this past summer’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Ripton, Vermont.  Full confession that I’d never heard of Alan before the conference, but after his reading in The Little Theater the second night “on the mountain,” as they say, Heathcock, constantly wearing a fedora, become one of many writers I made a mental note to learn more about.  Alan gave a craft class on Revision at Bread Loaf, much of which he covers in a great interview he gave to fullstop.net.  Some of the ideas may be unappealing, mostly because they imply that you’re probably sending in your stories too green, but there’s a great deal of wisdom coming out of this guy’s mouth.  And you can tell he believes it.  Like, really believes it.

Check it out here: http://www.full-stop.net/2011/04/27/interviews/alex/alan-heathcock/

Also recommended is Alan’s story collection Volt, which is garnering praise and earning well deserved rewards.  The collection took him 12 years to perfect and he talks about why in the interview; his approach to revision is a big part of it.  A sobering reminder here that we all work hard, but to get something truly “right” means you may just have to kill your clock.

Post #3: Flash This

As a novelist (mostly), I come to short stories a bit cautious, a bit weary.  After a few years of attempts, I’m warming up to them.  Which means that I come to flash fiction somewhere between mildly perplexed and scared shitless.  The form, though, is a good counterweight to my own tendency toward verbosity (see?), not to mention a healthy taste of my own medicine for a guy who won’t let even his best students write essays over 700 words long (usually 500 words) because he thinks they can’t be trusted with that many.

All this is to say I’ve been trying my hand at flash fiction, and mostly, failing miserably.  I always try to squeeze in too much.  Have trouble finding the telling gesture that can replace my paragraph with a few well chosen words.  I’ve decided flash fiction is the golf of the writing world–the form that has the biggest discrepancy between how hard it looks and how hard it actually is.

It’s like this.

You read a piece like Amy Hempel’s “San Francisco,” which is marvelous, but over so quickly you sort of don’t know what just happened to you.  You wonder if it was as massive as it seemed.  So you read it again.  Nope, you think, still not sure.  Then you read it a third time.  And that’s when the story really starts to go to work on you.  And yet, it’s so short!  It can’t be that good and be so short too.  Can it?

So you sit down and try to write a piece like Amy Hempel’s “San Francisco,” capping your story at a page and a half, and that’s when the full weight of her abilities sucker punches you in the gut.

This just in: writing is really hard.

Post #2: DFW on the (sub) Brain

The umbrella topic to start the year in my classes has been “What Does it Mean to be Educated?” but after re-reading and playing the audio to my honors seminar, I’m wondering now if the entire theme and the subsequent class periods spent discussing and writing about it wasn’t subconsciously chosen so that I could spend more time with David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech from Kenyon College.

Posthumously published as This is Water, the speech is a marvel.  And not a little unsettling, due to the onslaught of suicide references within it.  In it, Wallace urges us to live more aware lives, believing that the essence of being educated lies not in having information, but in being able to choose what information, and what emotions, you’ll give your time to.  He talks about the challenges of being alive and enjoying life in a world as fractured and busy as ours.  As usual, it sounds trite when I talk about the same idea, but in Wallace’s hands, cliches become nuanced and remarkably interesting things.  They become birds.  It’s especially powerful to listen to Wallace give the speech, which can be done here:  

I won’t re-hash the sadness of Wallace’s suicide and the giant crater it left in American letters.  Suffice to say, it’s massive.  But I will take a small stand here and say that, though I’ve read quite a bit of Wallace’s fiction, it’s his non-fiction that I go back to, that I would choose if pressed to grab only a handful of books from my shelf while the house burnt around me.