Tag Archives: Writing Advice

Post #128: Some Thoughts on Ann Patchett

9780062049810_custom-7ad2bd2af04c0ac867ab2c601a045a0fd85fd7b2-s99-c85            In Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder, she demonstrates how a writer can, and should, manipulate time to inform a reader’s experience and focus her attention. In a rudimentary sense, time = importance. By skipping briskly through time, for instance, a reader subconsciously infers that the story’s most urgent action is not currently happening, but coming, perhaps concealed just around the next corner/chapter. Conversely, such as in a long scene in the first chapter of State of Wonder, Patchett slows the story clock down to a crawl in order to draw the reader’s attention to the story weight the moment carries. In part, she does this in unsurprising ways, using description, conflict, and dialogue. What is surprising, though, and worthy of a closer examination, is how Patchett also uses repetition to quietly deepen our sense of who the characters are and how they will behave later in the story.

The scene opens in a suburban neighborhood where Marina Singh, the novel’s protagonist, along with her boss and (secret) lover, the aptly named Mr. Fox (think perhaps he’s devious?), have arrived at the home of Karen Eckman to deliver the awful news that Karen’s husband, Anders, is dead. And not only dead, but dead through suspicious circumstances in a remote section of the Amazon. Though the scene is quite early in the novel, for the seven pages Marina and Mr. Fox are in the Eckman’s household, time slows to a crawl. As they drive up, we get a long description of the Eckman’s neighborhood, as well as Marina’s internal wonderings about the finances involved in living there and how different her own life as a single woman is from her married colleague, a father of two. Then, after Karen Eckman opens the door and sees her husband’s colleagues standing there, clearly unnerved when she says “now this is a surprise,” Patchett withholds the reveal, building tension. We meet the family dog Pickles, who becomes a metaphor for the dead husband by scene’s end, and are treated to long descriptions of both the house itself, as well as the weather outside (it’s winter). We also glimpse a jungle gym through the window, a reminder that not only has Karen lost a husband, but two boys have lost a father. They just don’t know it yet.

When Karen asks if they’d like coffee, “Marina turned to put the question to Mr. Fox and found that he was standing directly behind her.” Meaning, of course, that Mr. Fox wants Marina to do the talking. At first we don’t make too much of this. But later down the page, Patchett repeats this character detail. “She {Marina} glanced back at Mr. Fox again…but Mr. Fox had turned towards the refrigerator now.” The repetition of the notion that Mr. Fox, who is not only the dead Anders’s boss, but the replacement male in this scene, shrinking back, thereby making Marina do the tougher, braver work, does two things. It tells us that Mr. Fox is perhaps cowardly, or at least deferential to a fault. It also tells us that Marina is, or will have to be, strong. It’s this latter character detail that Patchett gets the most use out of, for as State of Wonder progresses, Marina will over and over again have to dip into reservoirs of strength, bravery, and resilience she didn’t even know were there. Often, too, she has to do because Mr. Fox is (symbolically) hiding behind her.

Patchett continues to mine this tension through repetition as the scene develops. When Karen finally stops rambling and tending to the dog and says, “this isn’t good news, right?” Marina thinks to herself, “this was the moment for Mr. Fox to tell the story, to explain it in a way that Marina herself did not fully understand, but nothing came…Mr. Fox had his back to the two women.” A page, though perhaps only moments, later, Marina thinks “surely it was Mr. Fox’s part to give Karen the letter {in which she and Mr. Fox had learned of Anders’s death}…but then with a fresh wave of grief, Marina remembered that the letter was in her pocket.” Patchett is shrewd here. The main character is thinking one thing, that she’s doing what Mr. Fox should be doing, but Patchett’s goal is to both transfer power and responsibility, but also to prove Marina as a strong person who will rise to an occasion, demonstrated through this letter, an object Patchett uses to great effect here by placing it in Marina’s path.

Once Karen Eckman has absorbed the horrible news and read the aforementioned letter, again we are reminded of Mr. Fox’s lack of ability to engage in this most urgent moment. “The two of them were alone in this,” Marina thinks regarding she and Karen. The reason? “Mr. Fox had been driven from the room by the sound, the keening of Karen Eckman’s despair.” The repetition has built towards his very removal, enforcing the twin notions of female strength/companionship and absent men, which will both play central roles in State of Wonder.

Towards the end of the scene, after Marina has left Karen briefly to try to figure out what to do, who to call to support her and how to tell the Eckman boys, she returns to the kitchen to find Mr. Fox has finally stepped in and is “petting Karen’s head with a slow and rhythmical assurance” trying to put her at ease. He’s too late, though. The damage is done. And as Marina and Mr. Fox are driving away from the house, Marina thinks about how “she certainly blamed him {Mr. Fox} for leaving her alone to tell Karen.” She then wonders a heavier, more damning thing: “Did she blame him for sending Anders to his death in Brazil?”

By the time you’ve read State of Wonder in its entirety, this long, held moment early in the novel only grows in importance. Patchett slows down time and uses a range of craft elements, repetition most dynamically, to build character and introduce conflicts that will surface through the book, making this early moment a microcosm of who these characters are and how they will respond to difficult situations. Finally, it’s worth noting that Patchett’s use of repetition also achieves a great sense of contrast, for the focusing on Mr. Fox, important as it seems about him as a character, actually reveals even more about Marina, the novel’s heroine and most sympathetic and deeply developed character. In fact, the closer you look at this scene, the more you’ll wonder: how does Patchett do so many things so well at the same time? Writers of all stripes would be wise to study Patchett’s use of slowed time and repetition and try to borrow a bit of her craft mojo in their own work.

 

Post #123: Well Said, Eudora Welty

Some lovely passages from Eudora Welty’s memoir to brighten and enlighten your day…

“The events in our lives happen in a sequence of time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily–perhaps not possibly–chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.”

“Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is ever really lost.”

“Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.”

“That summer, lying in the long grass with my head propped against the back of a saddle, with the zenith above me and the drop of distance below, I listened to the mountain silence until I could hear as far into it as the faintest clink of a cowbell. In the mountains, what might be out of sight had never really gone away. Like the mountain, the distant bell would always be there. It would keep reminding.”

 

Post #108: Good Medicine From the News Feed

fb_icon_325x325My relationship to Facebook is that of a guy who got convinced to go to a party he’s now having trouble fitting in at, but one he’s still pretty glad he came to anyway . I’m not a constant status updater or gobbler of my friends’ every whim and posting, but I’m not a stranger either. Nor am I too cool for Facebook school. I check the news feed every day or two, post something at least once a week. Quite often, I’m left chuckling, shaking my head, or feeling very little at all; however, there are moments, such as recently, when my friend and fellow Bread Loaf alum Courtney Maum (pictured below) posted what felt like very good medicine to me, when Facebook seems pretty damn necessary.

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She wrote:

“Ten years ago, when I was still living in Paris, I wrote a novel called “The Blue Bear.” I was uncommonly lucky and got an agent for it and an interested editor at Doubleday right away. I worked on revisions for said editor all summer, talking with her on the phone, assured that when I returned to the states in September, we would sign a book deal. Revisions accomplished, I returned to Connecticut and the meeting was set. One week before this meeting, not only did the editor change her mind, but she also quit her job, leaving me “orphaned,” the offer gone and a dream dissolved.

I was totally thrown off-track by this turn of events. My writing became awful—I quickly set about writing something more “commercial” which was what the other editors who read the manuscript said they wanted. I became sad. I eventually became sadder. I left New York because I felt jealous and competitive and envious of anyone who was having success and it made my writing—and the process of writing—worse.

It took me a very long time to get rid of the disappointment and bitterness. YEARS. And then I got the joy back. I started writing for me again, not for some faceless audience and editor that I didn’t have. I stopped asking myself whether or not I was going to be liked or be successful, or quite simply, be published, and just started writing. And so it is, a full TEN YEARS after the crash of this first novel that a serendipitous alignment with the incomparable literary agent Rebecca Danielle Gradinger gave me the encouragement and motivation and courage to pick this decade-old project up again. And it is with some serious joy and emotion that I’m happy to tell you that the entirely new version I’ve quietly been working on has just been purchased by Sally Kim at Simon and Schuster for publication (if all goes well) next summer.

My friends: keep working. Keeping working hard for YOU. This journey taught me a very difficult but important lesson about patience, and generosity, and getting over oneself and getting the work done.”

I’m excited for Courtney. A little jealous, yeah. But I like to think it’s the good kind of jealousy. 

I spend a lot of my time alone in front of a computer typing words onto a screen that add up to stories. I do this for a variety of reasons. Obsession. Joy. Love. Ego. Desire. Avoidance. The reasons one creates are not readily understood or explained. But the sustaining force that propels me up to my attic writing room at the end of a long ass day when I just want to watch Jersey Shore is the sort of quiet passion that, I think, Courtney re-discovered. That unmistakable feeling of (wait for it, now don’t gag) personal accomplishment. Of a job well done. Call it whatever you want. Whatever it is, though, it has to be your own.

I’m working on a long novel right now and hope to begin formally submitting it to agents in the fall. That process, one that’s indescribably daunting and scary, is also one that’s very different from the protracted creative dream that brought the novel to life. As I’ve gotten closer and closer to the finish line, the two worlds, the business and the creative, have been moving closer together in my periphery, reaching out to touch so they make out like horny teenagers and make a mess of things. Courtney’s words have helped me find some courage to keep them (or at least try to) separate for now. To write the book that I need and feel compelled to write without the crushing burden of expectation. All that is out there, waiting patiently.  

By the way, if her news isn’t convincing enough, take my word for it that Courtney is a fantastic writer, and much of her writing is very humorous and will brighten your day. Check out an installment in her series “John Mayer’s Guide to Foraging” here. You can also follow Courtney on Tumblr and I recommend you do so. http://courtneymaum.tumblr.com 

Post #95: Well, no Shit

This report brought to you from our correspondents in The Land Where Things Are Fairly Obvious.

Last week I got to play writer in my life as a teacher, which is rare and to be treasured. One of my colleagues in the high school English department where I teach invited me to visit her three creative writing classes and talk about writing, publication, and perhaps above all, failure and rejection. I happily obliged. After all, getting to talk about myself as a writer to a rapt audience who thinks I’m pretty great and that I really know my stuff is unusual in the life of an obscure. One has to seize these moments.

My colleague had told her students in advance that a “published author” was going to visit class and when they found out it was me, they looked a little surprised. I knew many of them and had even taught some in years past. Still, once I got going, they seemed interested, even more so than I’d expected. I riffed a little on some relevant topics. Among them:

  • Writing for pleasure versus writing for publication.
  • What to do when you realize the universe is never going to thank you for the things that you created.
  • The “business” of writing.
  • The value of finding a community who can give you honest feedback on your work.
  • What to do when you realize your baby (your book) is ugly (shitty).

It was fun. I talked. They listened. I mean, they really listened. It’s not often that people listen to me like that. Then there was some Q and A. The students were impossibly sweet and asked the kind of questions that a writer often dreams of being asked, even if he would never admit he dreams about it. What’s your writing routine? Do you plot things out in advance or do you just “listen” to your characters? What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written? What was your proudest moment as a writer? The kids made me feel like Don Delillo, and I happily pretended that I was.

In the final minutes of class, as I was sneaking out, my colleague asked her students to write “exit cards” where they were to jot down some thoughts about what they learned from the conversation. Later that day and the next, she shared them with me. They were wonderful. Many were insightful and honest and quoted me directly, which made me feel more important that it should have. Many talked about things I’d said related to the personal nature of the creative process. Of how rejection is hard, but the work is everything. About how writing advice should always be heard with skepticism.

But my favorite? The one that was the pithiest and juiciest proxy for my wisdom on the subject at hand? The one that said, simply:

WRITING IS NOT GLAMOUROUS.

Now that kid was really paying attention.

Post #66: Speaking Truth to Tired

Though I’m a writer in my heart, and supporting myself through my craft (whatever that looks like) is my ultimate goal, I’m a high school English teacher by day and have been for seven years.  I love my work.  I do.  But as I sit here on an average Tuesday evening, eyes crossed with tiredness, blood stream trilling with copious quantities of coping caffeine, trying to muster up the focus, or even the energy, let alone the courage to go back to revising my dauntingly long and unwieldy novel in progress, I think of the great writer and writing teacher John Gardner who in On Becoming a Novelist said this:

“While one is learning one’s craft, then practicing it and hunting for an agent, then waiting for mail with the agent’s return address, one must somehow make a living…the writer will have to find a job.  Almost all full time jobs are hard on writing…also, I cannot work on a novel if I do not have long time blocks for writing–fifteen hours straight is for me ideal.  Trying to nickel and dime your way through a five hundred page novel can drive you crazy.  Some writers, in hopes of solving such problems, take work as fire watchers and sit alone in high lookout posts, occasionally glancing at the horizon.  Theoretically that ought to be an ideal situation, but in practice it’s a pain because the CB never quits.  Jobs as  night watchman or night hotel clerk are not much butter, and trying to earn a living by teaching high school is much worse–nothing is more draining.”

You ever have that feeling when you read something that the writer is not only talking to you directly, but that he’s right beside you whispering in your ear?

Me neither.

And he’s wrong.  It’s seven-hundred pages.

Post #54: The Path to Publication, Part 2

THE GREAT FREELANCE EDITOR ROUND-UP (guest post by author Ron Dionne)

So I had accepted the offer from Delabarre Publishing to publish my novel SAD JINGO as an ebook, and had withdrawn it from consideration at Akashic Books.

I had chosen the Wild West that book publishing had suddenly become, over the gentler precincts of traditional publishing.

Did that mean I just handed over the manuscript to Delabarre for formatting and slapping on a “cover” and posting to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the iBookstore an hour later?

It could have. We’ve all seen it done. I, for one, often cringe at the results.

No, my publisher and I decided that we did not want to rush a sloppy product out there. Yes, we’d almost sold the book (back when I was operating fully under the traditional publishing model, with an agent, and a well-regarded editor at a big publishing house on the hook), but that did not mean it wouldn’t take some work after the sale, if that sale had occurred.  (See my previous guest post for details on how the book almost sold, once upon a time, to HarperCollins.)

One of the drawbacks of taking the bracing, inspiring plunge with an entrepreneurial new publisher operating on a shoestring budget is that you can’t pay editors with shoestrings. Delabarre had no paid editors on staff. It was up to me, if I wanted to sleep nights, to hire professional editing done.

It sort of is, in a comfortable armchair way, like setting out into the frontier in search of that one quirky gunslinger that has just the right skills to catch the bad guy who’s made your life a shambles.  In this case, I needed a wily master of plot, pacing, and taste to help me sort out which of the two versions of my book was better, which revisions were improvements and which were not.  I needed someone to help me find the best Jingo there could be. And, as it turns out, to save me from myself.

How do you find such a person? Unfortunately, you can’t put on dusty boots and a cool-looking duster and saddle up a quirky horse for a ride through gorgeous back country that would look great shot with the Libatique lens and Blanko Freedom film in the Hipstamatic app on your iPhone.  No, you need to research developmental editors, freelance editors, and book doctors, most likely on the internet. You have to talk to as many people as you can, and listen hard. Some folks you like and want to agree with. Others you’re not too crazy about but you respect their opinion and you have to guard against dismissing any wisdom they might impart because, say, they voted for the other guy in the last election.

You kind of have to drive blind, and trust your horse sense.

I talked to folks I knew who had published. I studied web pages. I queried folks with fancy web sites. I queried folks who did not seem to be all that on-line at all, ironically enough since I was embarking on an ebook-only (for starters) adventure.

And that bit about horse sense? Hey, I’m the writer who had a serviceably good book almost sold to an editor so beloved by the industry they named an award after him when he passed. I’m the writer who, despite that pinnacle of near-achievement, decided I needed to revise the thing and make major changes to it. “Update” it.  Horse sense? Not my forté.

But it was all I had to rely on.

Eventually, I narrowed down my choices of prospective plot wranglers — I mean freelance editors, to two.  I sent the book to both.

One was an eminent West Coast editor with an impressive web site and lots of videos on Youtube of presentations he had given at writers’ conferences. I sent him my revised, updated version. He told me my book had potential but wasn’t ready for submitting to publishers yet because it had some plot issues and, “you must admit, lacks a satisfying denouement.”

I consulted the ghost of Mr. Ashmead and imagined a friendly scowl. Not really. I don’t truck with ghosts, but I thought about it. And I thought about sometimes folks needing to hear what they didn’t want to hear, that strong, evil-tasting medicine can sometimes be just what you need.

The other editor had actually worked with Larry Ashmead at HarperCollins, the editor to whom my now publisher had almost sold the book in the 1990s. I found her through Publishers Marketplace, where a testimonial quote from Mr. Ashmead on her member page caught my eye.  I sent her my original version, and explained I was unable to judge the merits of the revisions in my updated version.

When she and I talked, it became clear right away that the book needed a comparative read of the two versions. The elephant in the room was the fact that I’d revised a finished work finished long enough ago that the writer I was then was a significantly different person that the writer I am now.

How to decide? One editor said the book had merit but needed significant change. The other said the book had merit but she wanted to see how I had changed it and take the measure of those changes with the original spirit of the book in mind.

The first had more novels under his belt, as displayed on his web page. The second had more nonfiction listed among her credentials, but she also had the Ashmead connection.

I went with the second editor, Alice Rosengard. And I am not sorry. She read the original carefully. She took her time, spotting some things that needed fixing. Then she read the revised version, noting a few improvements but more importantly some changes that marred the original intent of the book, and detracted from the strengths that almost got it published in the first place.

I am convinced she helped me make the book the best that it could be. For me, the editing of it was validation. Validation by a stranger with whom I developed a rapport based solely on the content of a piece of writing I sent her. That means a lot to me.

I realize this is inside shop-talk before reality hits. Now it’s up to readers to decide if they like the book. And me to promote it. More on that later.

Post #36: Bausch(ian) Wisdom

For me, one of Facebook’s on-going pleasures, and this is coming from a former Facebook doubter and critic turned addict, is getting status updates by the great writer Richard Bausch, who I met at Bread Loaf.  I’m sure he doesn’t remember me, or the rather hilarious hour we spent sipping whiskey together around a campfire, but something tells me Richard has been making impressions on people who he won’t remember a hell of a lot longer than I’ve been alive.   Either way, I’m pretty sure Richard wouldn’t mind me sharing his wisdom from a recent status, in which he writes:

“One of the most endearing things about all the writers I know–and I know a lot of them of course–is that not one of them has any material ambitions. They want money of course because they need it, but when they get it they use it mostly to buy one thing: Time. That’s all any of them want. To be able to purchase a little Time from the world’s daily demands, and they want that time, all of them that I know, for one reason. To work. No material matter comes close to that for them. I think that’s a wonderful thing. And when the various kinds of wrangling and petty quarrels and vanities arise that come from being human and trying to do something very hard in a world that is mostly indifferent–well, I try to remember that. It’s something very beautiful about us that we all share: that sweet almost child-like quality of wanting from the world only a little time to keep doing this thing we love so much that even when it tortures us we long to be there in it and with it.”

You know that feeling when you hear something or read something and the sensation is that the speaker/creator has literally opened up your brain and surgically removed something you feel very deeply and then said it in a way that surpasses your own expressive capabilities and makes you understand that thing you felt even more deeply than you thought you did?  This was kind of like that for me.  I guess that’s the point of art, huh?

I figure since I’m borrowing Richard’s words, I should plug his wonderful book of short stories I read recently.  His stories will yank on your humanity.  They will humble you with their simple power.  They will clarify things you’ve been wondering about.