Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Matt tends to be a start-with-an-image (or situation) kind of writer, and his images tend to be climactic ones, so he generally builds from the ending back to the start--but any summary I give here doesn't do justice to his description. (So go read it, already.)
The best news is that Matt has so much to say on the topic that he plans to post installments, of which this is only Part I.
I'll drop notes alerting readers to additional posts on the topic at his site--but remember that links to all the posts on this particular topic can be found by looking to the sidebar on the right under "Looking for These?" and clicking on WRITERS DESCRIBE THEIR STORYBUILDING PROCESS: Index.
PS to Matt: The Secret War finally arrived in my mailbox today.
Monday, February 26, 2007
That, coupled with Three Things About Me, plus her novella Mean Mode Median (which Bluechrome Publishing is reissuing) will give her three books between covers and all in print at the same time (not to mention her slew of short stories scattered hither and yon). On top of all that, rumor has it she is co-authoring yet another novel. All in all, it’s a level of industry that makes a beaver colony look like a bunch of teen slackers on a street corner.
(An aside: I recently ordered Mean Mode Median from Amazon UK, and while I was about it I dropped through to see what was happening at Bluechrome. Readers will be interested to know that Bluechrome no longer accepts unagented manuscripts. Alas, when small presses begin to be successful…)
In any case, bravo (brava?), Aliya. But do feel free to slow down a bit. You’re making the rest of us feel as though we’re just lolling on the riverbank, chewing a stalk of grass and watching the clouds roll by.
Well, the identity of “Rat” of Pootle-and-Rat fame has been revealed, and by someone he probably thought he could trust (Pootle, aka Aliya Whiteley). And she sold him out cheap, too (all I had to do was ask).
It turns out Rat is Neil Ayres, whose novel Nicolo’s Gifts has garnered enough enthusiastic reviews here and there on the web that now I have to read it.
(And before I can do that, I have to wait while Amazon UK wraps it in waterproof packaging and then ties it to the tail of a manatee—or some other slow-moving sea creature—and points it in the general direction of California via the Panama Canal. At least that’s my current theory of their delivery methodology to the US. My alternative theory is that all books are held up by US Homeland Security until someone can verify that they are in fact books, something only a handful of people in the Bush Administration are capable of doing with any certainty, and their lips get really tired from all that reading. Sorry. It’s a sore point with me right now.)
In any case, Mr.Ayres has posted his varied approaches to writing, and I suggest you take a look. Like most realistic depictions of the process, it’s pretty damned funny.
Neil, nice to make your acquaintance.
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.
I’m loath to admit that anything about screenplays is superior to the novel. After all, a screenplay isn’t a finished work; it’s a blueprint. And the nature of a visual medium keeps the storytelling closer to the surface, and tends to make the point of view very diffuse. Few successful movies manage to stick to a strict point of view—at some point there is simply too much temptation to show the viewer something of which the protagonist is unaware, or jump for just a moment into some minor character’s point of view for the convenience of the storyteller. Two notable exceptions to this are A Clockwork Orange—which has to rely on voice-over—and Robert Townes’ Chinatown. The latter is widely regarded as one of the best screenplays ever written, but few people bother to note that it is the rigor of Townes’ control over POV that gives the piece such unity. (Polanski, Chinatown's director, doesn't even use the term "point of view"; to convey that it is seen through one character's experience, he describes it as "highly subjective".)
You may have noticed by now that I tend to digress. The point I wanted to make was that, while the screenplay in my opinion is a markedly inferior form, the whole screenwriting business is in some ways less insane than the business of prose. And one way in which screenwriting makes more sense is that unsold/unproduced material is considered to be a resource and a measure of one’s maturity.
An agent, producer, or director looking at a spec screenplay may well say, “I can’t use this, but I like the writing. I’d love to know what else you might have in your trunk.” The ‘trunk’ is where unsold scripts live, and it is thought of as more of an asset than an embarrassment; despite Hollywood's infatuation with youth, it is expected that a screenwriter talented and experienced enough to write a decent script will have some things—possibly very valuable things—stashed in the trunk.
Prose people don’t have ‘trunks.’ At best, we have ‘drawers,’ and you are well-advised not to talk about yours; it can hardly be a coincidence that the term is also a slang expression for one’s underwear. (Well, okay, it probably is a coincidence. So shoot me.) An agent for a screenwriter might be pleased to hear the writer had a dozen screenplays in the trunk—it points to a dedication to craft, a significant amount of experience, and just possibly a cache of material to be mined and marketed. Tell a literary agent you have a dozen unsold, unrepresented novels stashed away, and she is likely to assume you are a loser who couldn’t write his name on the back of a royalty check.
The prevailing myth of the ‘promising’ novelist is that the ‘first novel’ and ‘debut novel’ are one and the same. On occasion, they are. But many novelists of every stripe had a considerable amount of material in their drawers before they were published.
Sue Grafton completed four novels before getting published. Novels one, two, three, six, and seven remain unpublished.
Stephen King wrote three novels before the fourth (Carrie) was accepted for publication.
John Gardner was unpublished for ten years, and had five completed novels when he finally found an enthusiastic editor, who bought all five (Gardner still hadn’t found an agent).
Jonathan Kellerman has eight novels still unpublished.
George V. Higgins, a master of dialogue, anecdote, and simile, wrote for seventeen years before a novel was accepted for publication; the novel accepted was his fifteenth (!). If you ever want to read a rather embittered book about the craft of fiction, check out Higgins' On Writing.
Michael Connelly was quicker off the mark; it was his third novel that was published.
Robert Olen Butler, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, has five unpublished novels, forty unpublished short stories, and twelve unproduced plays.
John Nichols, famous for The Sterile Cuckoo, and The Milagro Beanfield War, claims to have written over eighty books, of which only fifteen have been published.
Some of the unpublished prior works of these authors were later published to considerable acclaim; some are still in the drawer.
I’m disinclined to take Hemingway’s advice on most matters, but on the topic of how to learn to write, I think he may be quite sound: “Write a million words.” I think most writers have a few books in their drawer.
But don’t tell anybody. Unpublished screenplays are an asset. Unpublished prose and poems stink. (No wonder Sylvia killed herself.)
Oh, my trunk? Three completed novels. Smite the Waters is my fourth.
And what of you, Gentle Readers? If you managed to publish your first effort, you’ll hear no one cheer louder than me, but 'fess up. What's in your trunk? (And no elephant jokes.)
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Shake and shake the ketchup bottle
First none'll come
And then a lot'll.
(Ogden Nash, of course)
This thread is growing rapidly enough that it's pushing itself off the bottom of the page, so I think it may be wise to create a sort of index and keep it up here for a while so people can find each other's posts.
How Do You Do That Thing You Do?
Neil Ayres (link goes to his blog)
Faye L. Booth (link goes to her blog)
Edward Charles (link goes to his website)
Matt Curran Part I (link goes to his blog)
Matt Curran Part II (link goes to his blog)
Matt Curran Part III (link goes to his blog)
Jeremy James (link goes to his blog)
Jake Jesson (link goes to his blog)
Lucy McCarraher (link goes her blog)
Roger Morris (posted here)
Raymond Obstfeld (posted here)
Cate Sweeney (posted here)
David Thayer (link goes to his blog)
Aliya Whiteley (link goes to her blog)
And, of course, my own blathering:
How Do You Build a Story?, Part I (Feb 12)
How Do You Build a Story?, Part II (Feb 15)
Why I Can't Plan My Stories (Feb 19)
For anyone who'd like to post on this topic, you might 1) Say something on your own site and alert me to it, or 2) Drop your stuff in the Comments trail here and I'll promote it to a post, or 3) Send me an e-mail with your text and I'll post it here, or 4) Do something else that hasn't occurred to me yet.
Faye's explanation is especially interesting to me as she places her novels in the Victorian period, and I'd always wondered how one goes about recreating historical voice. It sounds like a great deal of work, but it also sounds as if she's done her homework and then some (can you spell 'obsessive'?). She's even dug into the "Language of Flowers" business that used to burden a handful of mixed wildflowers with more allusions than Finnegans Wake.
(Side note to Faye--I remember John Fowles, after completing The French Lieutenant's Woman, remarking that he'd had to make the dialogue slightly more archaic than was strictly correct because upper-and-middle-class Victorian speech sounded a bit too modern to be believable to our ears. Izzat true, or was he messing with the interviewer?)
In any case, I'm greatly looking forward to Cover the Mirrors. And, speaking of enfants terrible, Faye is apparently 26. I was glad to find out she was at least that old, as if she were doing all this while under the quarter-century mark I might have to kill her. And that would be wrong. (And might get me sentenced to Transportation. Oh, wait, I'm already in the Colonies...)
This exchange is the most fun I've had in a while. I've learned a number of things, first of which is that I'm one of the most unsystematic folks around, and second of which is that I'm woefully underequipped for this job.
Note to Self--Shopping List:
--A3 Tracing Paper
--Collection of Multihued Index Cards
--Hardback spiral-bound notebook (must be unattractive)
--Edgar Allen Poe action figure for desk
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Mr. Thayer notes that his manuscripts have all to date returned to him with "varying levels of thrust." Indeed, the speed and force with which they have been thrown back has varied, and I hope he won't mind if I tell you that the book he is rewriting came this close (narrow gap twixt thumb and index finger) to publication, passing upward through three tiers of reader-critiquer committees at one press over the period of about a year before they said, "Sorry..."
Rejection of my own manuscripts always induces a sinking feeling, since we all believe we have our flaws, right? But watching other people's good manuscripts get tossed back stirs a sense of righteous indignation in my belly. I'm still seriously pissed off on his behalf.
The title of his essay is the most explanatory part, and is about as succinct a summary of process as I can imagine.
I'm thinking of putting Kindred Spirits on the web as a free download, or only for the cost of giving me feedback. Does anyone have any reasons why this would be either a good, or perhaps a very bad idea?
I'm a little unclear on why she's contemplating this course of action. Comments, anyone?
I'm trying to think of my writing method. I used to dive in with only the vaguest idea of where I was going. But several unpublished novels later, I worked out that I needed to do a little bit more planning. I like to do what I call 'cooking' where I just mull over things for a long time. If I'm writing one of my crime novels everything has to be really plotted out. I now use sheets of A3 tracing paper to write my story strands on. I can lay them over each other to see how the layers connect. I also have to work out a time line pretty tightly. But even Taking Comfort, which was not so much a genre crime novel, had a lot of work put into the story. I treated it a little like a screenplay - you know, structure is story (now who said that?). In fact, I wrote it as a screenplay at one point. Then I realised it had to be a novel.
Another thing I do when I'm starting out is get a lot of different coloured index cards and different coloured pens. I write character details on the cards - colour coded depended on which plotline they fit in with mainly. Of course, the characters overlap, but they usually belong to one strand or another. Then I completely ignore the cards and write the book. (Well, sometimes I check back, just to make sure I keep things consistent.)
In my crime books (2 written so far, so that hardly qualifies me to speak with any great authority - but I do what I do) I also find it quite useful to write a developed chapter by chapter synopsis, before writing the book itself. In this synopsis, the final denouement will be written quite fully, with a fair amount of the dialogue in place. I have found both times that I have used a lot of this dialogue when I actually get to the writing itself. So I suppose what I do is write the ending first! Weird, hey?
I won't even attempt to summarize what she says, except to note that it's hilarious--and that it has the ring of truth. It also involves careful planning, but then--well, go read it for yourself.
Jake makes some good points about reading eclectically (now if we could only convince book critics to go and do likewise) and about starting with limited objectives.
He also apologizes for having the temerity to post on this topic when he is still among the ranks of the unpublished. I have to say that if there is any forum where you don't have to tug your forelock abount not having made it over the publication hump yet, it would have to a gathering of Macmillanites. I think most (and maybe all?) of us have been slugged in the nose by the publishing industry more than once. As anyone can tell by taking a walk through a bookstore, publication is no guarantee of merit, and lack of publication doesn't signify lack of merit.
Some of the best writers I know aren't yet published.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Hi David. I just spent ages writing about how I write and then went to publish it and it didn't save. Bugger! First rule of writing, make sure you have a copy of your work somewhere. So I'll try again, but I'm sure it won't be so good this time (oh we always say that!)
Anyway, I'll cut and paste this to your blog too, but basically I do a bit of both planning and flying without a plane. I'll do a basic plan of the story (arc if you wanna be posh) roughly where I think it's gonna go and the main characters, but then I just plunge in and bash my way through, like Bam-bam in The Flintstones, without going back over it that much till I finish a whole draft, or a least get over half way through, because the problem with this method is, you often realise there was something you should have put in earlier to make the plot work better, or as you found, the need to delay information a bit.
I think stage plays and screenplays have to be much more tightly structured (hence McKee's apoplexy!) and I studied playwriting, but think I prefer novel writing because we can wander off for a bit, as long as it's not too far or for too long.
I think the plan/no plan thing is something to do with (I say in my usual know-all way) right brain/leftbrain conscious/subconscious or something like that... so we need to be logical and contolling to work out a plan, but we shouldn't do it too much and should let the wild creative unconscious stuff take over sometimes (in writing and in life!) because that's where the magic happens, when we start making themes and links and images that all connect somehow and we had no idea at the time, or when we find just the perfect phrase without thinking...
...the downside of not much plan is I think there is a lot more rewriting to do, as I'm finding at the moment. Such as me wanting to hang onto my first two chapters because I'd just been writing my way into the characters and didn't want to let them go! Whatever way we choose, none of it is easy, but it is (mostly) enjoyable.
Monday, February 19, 2007
ME: (delivered with a hearty but clearly false tone of confidence, possibly slapping own thigh while dropping into chair) Right, then! We’ve established that the detective suspects Carolyn stole the key, and Carolyn lets him go on thinking that. Why?
MIND: She’s protecting someone.
MIND: Isn’t it ‘Whom’?
ME: Don’t get picky. Who or whom is she protecting?
MIND: From what?
ME: From the detective! Why would she do such a thing, anyway?
MIND: Probably her childhood…
ME: You’re right, you’re right. We don’t know anything about her background. Where did she grow up, who were her parents—?
MIND: Madge and Sheila.
ME: Huh? Madge and...Sheila? Both women?
MIND: Same-sex marriage. Or Madge killed her husband with Sheila’s help. Or maybe one had a sex change. That would be kinda interesting, wouldn’t it, having a transgendered parent? Fertile ground. Ten bazillion times more interesting than this recycled Chandleresque wannabe crap you’re trying to foist off on me. But every time I try to get creative you slap me down with your constant criticism and carping and—Hey, look, a blackbird!
ME: Where? Oh. No, that’s a starling. Get back on track here. What does Carolyn want?
MIND: Bagels. Blueberry bagels with cream cheese. I think starlings have longer beaks than that.
ME: 'A bagel' is not what Carolyn wants. It’s what you want. Now buckle down and think about this damn story!
MIND: (begins to whistle My Sharrona and drum on the desk in an unusually meatheaded fashion.)
ME: Stop that…stop it!…A least not that song!
MIND: Fine. How about, Don’t cry for me, Ar-jun-TEEEEEEE-nuh—
ME: No, not that, either! I'm begging here. What am I supposed to do with you, anyway?
MIND: Blueberry bagel, toasted, with cream cheese. And none of that low-fat imitation glop. Real cream cheese.
ME: Okay, I give, I surrender, we’ll go get bagels and coffee. But when we get back, we have to buckle down and do some work, right? ...Hmm, so where’s my wallet and keys?
MIND: Do I have to keep track of everything?
Guess what? When we get back from bagels, nothing happens. And that’s on a day when my imagination is being cooperative. On other days my mind slouches against the wall like a sullen teenager, arms crossed over its narrow chest, refusing all eye contact and answering only in grunts.
I blame myself, really. I ought to have sent my imagination to obedience school when it was still a pup. But it’s too late now. The only way I can get it to help is by using primitive child psychology: “Mmmmm, yummy! Look, Daddy’s eating. Daddy's eating it all up!”
So I just write, and pretend I’m having fun. Since I usually am—I trance out really easily, especially when I’m focused on fiddly craft details—soon the imagination joins in, and a good time is had by all. But unless I have writing as a distraction, I can't even think about my story. (Okay, I admit that doesn't make much sense. So sue me.)
I like to claim I wouldn’t have it any other way. But the truth is, if I ever get another imagination, it’s obedience school for the little bastard as soon as it’s old enough to romp across the kitchen floor.
The way I write novels makes defense contracting look like a paragon of efficiency.
She's very much one who plots in advance, with chapter breakdowns and the whole shebang, so if you're like me (that is, a bit vague most of the time) you'll want to read how she organizes it. Lucy's background is in television screenwriting, which, no matter how people snipe at TV, is a hyper-disciplined form with very specific parameters, like a sonnet.
Her method sounds like a great way to go, if you can get your mind to cooperate. (My flounder-ahead approach has the virtue of offering many surprises to the writer while writing; but many of those unexpected developments are surprises on the order of a flat tire.)
Without further ado, my favorites among bad or so-so working titles for books that were finally published with iconic titles:
Jane Austen First Impressions
(Pride and Prejudice)
Samuel Butler Ernest Pontifex
(The Way of All Flesh)
Stephen Crane Private Fleming, His Various Battles
(The Red Badge of Courage)
Raymond Chandler The Second Murderer OR Sweet Bells Jangle OR Zounds, He Dies
(Farewell, My Lovely)
William Faulkner Twilight
(The Sound and the Fury)
F. Scott Fitzgerald Trimalchio in West Egg OR Hurrah for the Red White and Blue OR The High-bouncing Lover
(The Great Gatsby)
E.M. Forster Monteriano
(Where Angels Fear to Tread)
Thomas Hardy The Body and Soul of Sue
(Tess of the D’Urbervilles)
Joseph Heller Catch-18
Ernest Hemingway They Who Get Shot OR The Sentimental Education of Fredrick Henry OR As Others Are OR An Italian Chronicle
(A Farewell to Arms)
James Herriot It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet
(All Things Bright and Beautiful)
James Jones If Wishes Were Horses
(From Here to Eternity)
D.H. Lawrence The Wedding Ring
(Women in Love)
Carson McCullers The Mute
(The Heart is a Lonely Hunter)
Margaret Mitchell Tote the Weary Load OR Pansy OR Ba! Ba! Black Sheep
(Gone With the Wind)
Thomas Pynchon Low Lands OR The Yo-Yo World of Benny Profane OR Down Paradise Street OR Of a Fond Ghoul OR Dream Tonight of Peacock Tails
John Steinbeck The Salinas Valley
(East of Eden)
Tennessee Williams The Moth OR The Poker Night
(A Streetcar Named Desire)
Most, but not all of these were gleaned from Andre Bernard’s entertaining Now All We Need is a Title.
Friday, February 16, 2007
After reading Maslin's article, David Thayer e-mailed me his plot for a sure-fire bestseller (no, you can't have it):
What if Hannibal was living in wine country waiting for the label on a new release to signal an army of skeletons rising from the soil of Napa Valley to ravage the countryside? And only a perky winemaker fresh out of UC Davis can save the Bay Area?
By "Hannibal" I'm assuming he means Hannibal Lecter, though Mr. Thayer is a bit of a Roman-Empire scholar, so he might mean the Carthaginian guy with the elephants. Either way, it sounds like a winner. Add in an explanation of why the Smiley-Face symbol suddenly became so widespread in the 70s, and how Jesus' descendents were linked to the killing of JFK, and we'll never need another popular novel again.
Or did I miss something?
Thursday, February 15, 2007
I don’t plot my stories in advance because I have no idea what the story is until I’m inside it. What I have to begin with is usually some obsession or question, something that is bothering me. In the case of Smite the Waters, it was the problem of Kant’s Categorical Imperative as applied to international terrorism: what would happen to the world if everyone behaved like that?
In the case of al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center, it was obvious to me that there was no idea of the measured use of force. I have no doubt whatsoever that if bin Laden could have killed more people, he would have done so; indeed, I believe that if he could have killed everyone in New York City, he wouldn’t have hesitated for a moment. What if everyone acted like that? What if groups of Americans decided to act in a similar fashion?
After only a short time, I realized that this question wasn’t terribly intriguing in that form, because to think that way, the characters would have to be so far out of their minds as to be impossible to identify with—and what’s interesting about that?
But suppose their goals were more modest; suppose they decided to fight terrorists with the tools of terror? It is a commonplace that the tools and tactics of the enemy are often adopted, at least to some extent, in any conflict. Why not here?
What would adopting such tactics do to the hearts, minds and souls of the people using them? How would they rationalize their actions (to themselves and to others)? Where would they draw the boundaries on permissible behavior? (For that matter, how would the US government react to overseas terror carried out by Americans?)
For some time I’d had a vague idea of a “wounded warrior” woman as a character, though not for any particular writing project. The burnt-out soldier is a stereotype in fiction about men, but what would the female counterpart be like? Then, one afternoon, the fight-terror-with-terror question collided in my mind with this cloudy character image, and suddenly Carla Smukowski was wandering half-drunk into a porn shop in Portland, Oregon, and the book was off and running. In two days I had the 22 pages of the first chapter (that's many hours at the keyboard, since an hour per page is a blazingly rapid pace for me and two hours per page is more typical), and also had a notion where the story was headed.
Other characters then volunteered, and each brought their own complications, and by the end of the third chapter I realized that once people set off down this kind of road, their plans would naturally grow more grandiose, and that the obvious thing for them to decide was to stop attacking Muslims, and attack Islam itself by obliterating Mecca. An insane idea, perhaps, but one that had resonance.
This new idea—which I suppose most people would now describe as the premise of the novel—required backing up and adding an additional three or four paragraphs to Chapter Two, but needed no other changes. I'd written my first chapters to be fraught with possibilities since I'd been rather unclear as to where the story was heading. (I think that creating a situation fraught with possibilities, both in terms of character and plot, is all one can ask of opening chapters.)
I had spent a great deal of time in various Middle East countries over many years, so the locales required little research; and many of the technical details of nuclear matters and ships (both figure in the plot) were already familiar to me because of my education and work background. (Indeed, it would probably be more accurate to say that what I already knew began steering the story, but it was an unconscious matter.)
Once I have a clear premise and well-defined characters, plot starts writing itself. The ways characters behave—or more specifically, the ways they can behave given their natures—coupled with the logistics of the premise, narrow down the paths the story can follow.
By about page 150 (out of about 500), I knew what the situation of the climax would be (though not how the characters would respond), and the general outline of the plot became inevitable, shaped by what had gone before and the situation toward which we were headed.
In the end, after the first draft, I realized a few things had happened too quickly and easily (something pointed out to me by a number of First Readers), and I had to add some complicating action scenes to the first third and last third of the book. (I did much putting-in and very little cutting in reaching the final form of the book--even though everyone tells me revision is all about cutting). But, with the exception of those calculated additions (and the amendments suggested by my Wiz of an editor, Will Atkins), the plot pretty much wrote itself once the ungainly boat of the novel was launched.
Now, I dearly wish I could have worked all this out on yellow legal pads before writing (see Part I of this post), I really do. But I have no idea who my characters really are until I see them on the page, I have no idea what kind of book I’m writing until I hear the voice of the first chapter, and I can’t know my story until those characters begin interacting with the half-assed concepts swarming in my brain.
If you can do these things without stumbling half-blind into the actual writing of the book, I say, more power to you, and I’m green with envy.
So, How Do You Do That Thing You Do? I’d really like to know how you go about writing a novel. If you have only a few words, drop them into the comment trail, but if you want to give a longer explanation, e-mail it to me. (Or, for those of you who blog, if you want to drop it on your own blog and let me know about it, I’ll link to your post.)
Of course, according to Mr. McKee, I’m lying about all of the foregoing. Better get out those yellow legal pads.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
I know writers have a reputation for schizophrenia, but this is carrying things too far. (Unless this is some scheme by RN to make Inland Revenue and the IRS both think he's already paid taxes in the other country...Oops. Sorry I mentioned it.)
*A new profession. I'm suggesting we call these people 'transatlanticators".
Monday, February 12, 2007
I knew McKee’s philosophy on story building, be it screenplay or novel: sit and think about the structure before you begin writing. Make outline after outline (on yellow legal pads, mind you), and once the story structure is unassailable and the characters are nailed down in detailed notes, begin writing.
What I asked him about is the other approach—find an image, a situation, a character—that calls to you as a writer, and begin writing to discover your story.
“That doesn’t work,” he said.
“It’s how Faulkner said he worked,” I said.
McKee shrugged. “Artists lie all the time. Nobody’s ever written a successful story like that.”
Well, if McKee is right, then an awful lot of writers tell exactly the same lie. Faulkner’s famous “muddy underpants” story isn’t unusual. Philip Roth has described writing for up to six months at a time before he finds an image, a paragraph, or a situation that can act as a point of departure. E.L. Doctorow began what became Ragtime by writing about the history of the wall at which he was staring. Donald Westlake began his first Parker novel with a man stomping across the Washington Bridge and snarling at anyone who offered him a lift; the rest of the book sprang from his need to know who the man was and why he had so much attitude. In his Paris Review interview, Martin Amis said:
The common conception of how novels get written seems to me to be an exact description of writer’s block. In the common view, the writer is at this stage so desperate that he’s sitting around with a list of characters, a list of themes, a framework for his plot, and ostensibly trying to mesh the three elements. In fact, it’s never like that. What happens is what Nabokov described as a throb. A throb or glimmer, an act of recognition on the writer’s part. At this stage, the writer thinks, Here is something I can write a novel about.
Novelist and teacher Stephen Koch says (in his excellent book on writing) that you cannot know a story until it’s been told. In other words, only after it has been laid out can you decide what elements belong and which are extraneous; only after you in some sense ‘know’ the story and the characters can you really polish and embellish it for maximum dramatic effect.
I once had someone tell me this issue had been studied, and that about two-thirds of novelists planned their work carefully in advance, with outlines and character-trait sheets, and the other one-third plunged in with an image or a notion, and worked it out on the page.
There are some very successful novelists among the planners; J.K. Rowling has a reputation for plotting out her novels before writing like a general planning a major campaign in foreign territory. Elizabeth George’s book Write Away explains her own approach, which is to plan right through the end before starting to write. (George is very specific, however, about the fact that this is only her way of working, and that it shouldn’t be taken as any sort of a rule.) And most ‘how-to-write-a novel’ books take a similar tack—but, then, it’s probably hard to write a how-to book whose main advice is to flounder your way through.
I think McKee is wrong: not all successful writers know the details of their plots before they begin. But I can’t see how we will ever know for certain, given that McKee’s corollary is that anyone who says they don’t do detailed planning is lying.
And I suppose fiction writers by their nature are liars. In my next post, I’ll talk about how I build a story, and ask how you go about building yours. (Don't gnaw your nails to the quick while waiting, even though I'm sure it's pretty suspenseful.)
Saturday, February 10, 2007
In addition to Ray’s undeniable way with words, the book’s enthusiastic reception might just possibly have something to do with its co-author, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (do ya think so, Dave?). As most of you probably know, over the years Kareem has proven himself to be far more than just a ‘sports figure’; in addition to his various acting gigs, he has also followed his wide-ranging interests in jazz and history, and has already co-authored five books. (If you’re not sure who Kareem is—if, for example, you were raised in the Mongolian backcountry beyond Ulaan Baator, or on Pluto—then you can catch up by reading this remedial material.)
Apart from their shared passion for the Harlem Renaissance, Kareem and Ray also share a passion for basketball—though I’m informed by reliable sources that Kareem has always played clean, while Raymond fouls at every opportunity. We haven’t yet seen them go one-on-one, but we’re waiting. (The photo on the right shows the two proud authors; we’re presently taking wagers on this grudge match at what we consider to be acceptable odds.)
Raymond has been a busy guy. He’s always been prolific—he’s written about forty books, one of which was a finalist for an Edgar (the Oscar of the mystery trade), and he went in drag for the trio of successful pseudonymous Laramie Dunaway novels. But lately he’s been up to his ears in screenplays. His script for the documentary based on the Harlem Renaissance book is being produced by Spike Lee, and another related screenplay is likely to move forward. Three other screenplays are in various stages of development (don’t I sound Hollywood?), and if all of these properties roll at once, Raymond is going to have to learn to be in ten places at once. In addition, his latest novel Anatomy Lesson (which introduces the unique and stunning heroine Stevie Croft) is forthcoming as one of the first books from start-up (or do I mean upstart?) press Iota Publishing.
Ray’s busy, but he’s not too busy to sign books, and neither is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They’ll be signing On the Shoulders of Giants at Orange Coast College’s Robert Moore Theatre at 2 pm on Wednesday, February 28th. Those of you within driving distance of Costa Mesa, California, would be well-advised to drop through; you can bring your own or buy a copy there. (Venal animal that I am, I plan to get more than one signed so I can sell some later at well-above the cover price. I’d recommend it, but I’d also recommend claiming additional copies are for friends—it sounds less mercenary.)
The internet, like the US Congress, tends toward polarization. If you troll through the forums, you’ll find two opposing opinions expressed by writers about the prospects of publication. One group—let’s call these the Pangloss crowd—contends that all good books get published. (As you might suspect, the ranks of this group are mostly filled with published writers.) The other pole—let’s call these the Conspiracy crowd—claims the entire publishing system is rigged, and that trash gets published while great novels languish in drawers.
Pat Walsh says the story is a lot more complicated than either side realizes.
Walsh—founding editor of the classy indie press MacAdam/Cage—has written a book that ought to be on every writer’s bookshelf: 78 reasons why your book may never be published and 14 reasons why it just might. The number one reason Walsh cites that your book might not get published is because you never finish it, but he goes on to list twenty-four other ways you can write an unpublishable novel, some of which pertain to poor writers (14. You Do Not Have Style) and others to talented writers (15. You Have Too Much Style) All in all, 25 reasons your book might be bad, and all of them reasons that will have the Panglossians nodding and chanting, “I told you so.”
But that leaves 53 other reasons you might not get published, and, while these won’t satisfy the Conspiracy crowd, Walsh lays out some truths about the publishing industry that are all too often Panglossed over. To engage in massive paraphrasing and summarizing, if you have a good book—even a great book—you may remain unpublished because a) you piss people off, b) your agent pisses people off, c) you don’t understand how publishing works, d) you present your book badly, e) you didn’t do your research, f) you just plain had bad luck…
Various people have argued that the slush pile is so hideous that even a mediocre manuscript will shine like a beacon. Anyone who has ever been in a large writing workshop with a heavy weekly manuscript load will have reason to doubt this—after a few repeated exposures to terrible writing, one becomes snowblind and uncharitable, and the next piece needs to work hard to get a fair hearing. Walsh lists this as: 47. You Are in Bad Company, and states the problem both succinctly and all too vividly:
Reading piles of mediocre-to-lousy writing leaves a person numb, worn out, and prone to miss gems. One fresh clam will not undo the ills of a platter of bad ones.
Walsh admits that many fine books do not synopsize well or generate nice sales handles (he cites Ulysses and The Old Man and the Sea as examples, and offers two short and funny loglines for those books). He also recognizes, unlike editors and agents, that cover letters and query letters may not reflect the quality of their book: “Sadly, good manuscripts are often saddled with lousy cover letters…” (Unfortunately, he doesn’t point out that this is because writing self-promotional materials and writing a good book use different skill sets.)
78 reasons…gives insights into office politics, agent-editor relations, profit-and-loss statements, editor’s career motivations, writing conferences, and a host of other behind-the-curtain matters that affect writers and how their manuscript submissions are treated. I’ve never seen another book quite like it…
…and yet it doesn’t seem to be very popular with writers. Many of the posts I’ve seen about it on the web whine the book is discouraging and pessimistic, and in some cases doesn’t offer remedies. (Q: Is there a remedy for bad luck, other than good luck? The author never claimed he was writing “How to Get Published.”)
I admit that Walsh’s writing, while often hilarious, is acerbic, and frequently as frank and to-the-point as a quick sock in the nose. At times, the book would verge on savage were not so much of his humor at his own expense, and if you’re looking for inspiring, follow-your-bliss, Natalie-Goldberg-type warm fuzzy-wuzzies, this is not the book for you. If you’re an aspiring novelist, there are sections that will make you cringe (“Dear God, is that me he’s talking about?”); but it’s a book that bears a second reading, and the next time around, most of what Walsh has to say will seem like no more than common sense. (So give it that second read before slashing your wrists.)
I have one quibble with the book: 22.You Read Your Writing Aloud Too Much. Walsh claims that words need to work on the page, and that writers who read their words aloud can, like great actors, bring sense and power to writing that is essentially flat and lifeless. Perhaps so, but I think more writers ought to consider reading their words aloud, preferably in a monotone. I’ve seen many a train-wreck of a sentence that a writer would never have let stand if he’d tried to mouth it.
The ..and 14 reasons why it just might section that ends the book is obviously intended as Hope hiding at the bottom of Pandora’s Box, and it’s as close to soothing and inspiring as you’re likely to get from this treatise. There’s little here in the way of recommendations that doesn’t read as “avoid everything in the 78 reasons (if you can!)” In these chapters, though, Walsh lets his love of writing and publishing (which is a subtle undercurrent in the rest of the book) shine through.
Yeah, yeah, very nice. But buy the book for the 78 reasons Why Not.
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Indeed, given the history of cheese and wine, why ought we to be so excited about fresh-ground pepper? When will they be asking instead if we’d like to sample the house’s 2001 ground pepper, aged in French oak, and stored until last week in limestone caverns under constant temperature and humidity?
All this is preamble to telling you I’m going to toss the occasional book review onto this blog. Now, there’s no shortage of reviews around. You can get the latest in crime and mystery served up over on David Thayer’s site or at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind; you can read an eclectic mix from Mark Sarvas and the gang at The Elegant Variation or from the wide-ranging Bookslut; you can hear about whatever comes to mind for Michael Allen at Grumpy Old Bookman, or find various largely lit-fic reviews at Fiction Bitch, and even read reviews of the latest self-published novels at Girl on Demand (aka POD-dy Mouth)...and there's more worthy sites beyond those.
If you want to hear the latest, Tomorrowville is not the place to come. In terms of reviews, think of this site as Yesterdayville.
My little niche will be books for writers—either books on craft, books on the writing life, or novels I feel exemplify some unique approach to the page. But I don’t plan to post these in a timely manner. Instead, I will be talking about books that have been around; indeed, in some cases, I will be talking about books that have vanished from sight (and some that were never terribly visible to begin with).
No fresh-ground writing here. Only vine-ripened, sun-dried writing.
And what’s my goal? Establishing or reviewing a canon certainly isn’t in the cards. I’m not going to do the obvious, and refer you to Aristotle’s Poetics for advice on structure, to Gardner’s Art of Fiction for overall craft, or to Nabokov or Hemingway for close reads of sentence structure; if somehow you’ve missed those, there are already plenty of signposts pointing to those well-trod paths. Instead, I will be going for the treasures hidden in the weeds—lesser-known books on craft, or novels that show some special (if sometimes elusive) technique.
I warn you, I will be doggedly lowbrow (or perhaps non-brow) about this. TVille is a casual hang-out with friends, and on this cyberpage I’m more likely to wax surfboards or bikini lines than poetic. The sublime is, well, sublime, I suppose, and also often ineffable, and here I want to deal with practicalities, with things that are as effable as possible. Posturing will be important when Paris Review interviews you some day (the interviews are now online free, BTW), but for the here and now, let’s all agree to admit that effing is good, and if you can recommend any books that will help us eff, please toss them into the Comments trail. Don’t be shy, and if you feel the chill breath of your Lit Prof on the back of your neck, post anonymously or use a pseudonym.
Or, if you hate this sort of thing, skip any post that has “Vine-Ripened” in the title.
Sunday, February 4, 2007
It’s true: writers do tend to study personal notes from agents (and even more so those from editors) like a haruspex searching entrails for a sign. (I myself practice Gyromancy—divination by spinning in circles—rather than the entrails bit; it’s cleaner, and safer as well, once you learn to avoid crashing into the coffee table.) And if it’s a well-reasoned letter, it’s hard not to take the observations to heart.
One ought to be wary of doing so, however, unless the same criticisms and recommendations crop up again and again. I’ve been pretty lucky (if that’s the word for it) in getting personal feedback in rejections. As an example of why one might not want to start drastic revisions based on the personal feedback from a single rejection, I’d like to share excerpts from some of the rejections (in most cases, from a look at the first three chapters) of my unpublished novel Tomorrowville (yes, there's the origin for the name of this blog):
This has got a good narrative pace, smooth, fluid prose, and outstanding dialogue. The plot is original and unusual. I’m afraid, though, that I felt I needed more characterization—more about your protagonist’s inner conflicts…
I think you have an excellent ear for dialogue and I love your characters. Unfortunately, I found the plot just a touch familiar…
Your plotting and prose are excellent and your characters are well-rounded, but your dialogue has serious problems...
I’m afraid I don’t represent science fiction.
As you are probably aware, 90% of what I sell is science fiction, so political satire is outside my list.
Not my cup of tea; it’s a bit too much of a techno-thriller for me.
I have no idea how to move comedy in today’s market.
I see this as a hip summer movie rather than a novel.
Try revising on the basis of that input. Hence my reliance on Gyromancy, though I’m thinking about taking up Margaritomancy.*
*(No, that’s not divination by drinking Mexican cocktails. It’s divination through casting pearls. Swine optional.)
Saturday, February 3, 2007
Not sure if it's in bookstores or not; I plan to go pester a few just to find out. A clerk at Barnes & Noble told me it's not in the store, but that it was available for immediate delivery from their warehouse, which means that some of them have already arrived in California. In any case, if you can't you can't find one in your local book dive, they can be apparently be ordered easily enough from the stores; or, if you prefer not to get out of that chair, a few mouse clicks will do the same.
It's cheaper here, as it's a trade paperback. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the cool new cover--shown to the left--that the upcoming paperbacks will have in the UK. [Correction: That cool new cover apparently hasn't been approved for public release yet, so now I'm reverting to the old cover...which is also pretty cool. For those of you who already saw the new cover at this site: You've seen into the future. That's what clairvoyance feels like.]
Nonetheless, I seem to recall someone saying something to me about books and their covers and judging them thereby. So don't hold out for the new cover. Go ahead and get one now.
Thursday, February 1, 2007
I actually had a good time. I’d look at his suggestions, one by one, saying to myself, “Yes, yes, yes, fuck you, fuck you.”
— Booker Prize-winning novelist Peter Carey on being closely edited for the first time.*
Early on in my days in this silly business (all of about five years ago), a well-known publishing-industry figure advised me: Never admit you’ve been rejected (or that you have unpublished works), as novels are somehow expected to emerge Athena-like in perfected form. (The corollary to this was never to admit you’ve been helped by anyone in any way, as the central myth of the trade is that of the solitary, rebellious, unschooled genius. ) That’s probably sound advice, but, in my unsound fashion, I’ve ignored it.
Roger Morris took transparency to a new level by publishing his first royalty statement. (Roger's second book, the mystery A Gentle Axe, inexplicably retitled "The Gentle Axe" in the US, is on it's way in March over here, so his first royalty statement is probably only a dim memory. It's been all of, what, four months?)
I can’t match Roger on that (and even if I had a royalty statement in hand I might not be inclined to), but I’ll spend a little time talking frankly about getting, well…edited.
My editor, Will Atkins, explained via e-mail that he would be editing me page-by-page, and also might have overarching structural comments, but assured me he expected the editing would be light as the prose was already polished. After we had an agreed-upon text, the manuscript would go on to copyediting, and once that was agreed upon as well, it would go to proofing.
All this sounded like standard operating procedure to me (much the same process a technical book or paper undergoes on its way to the press, and I’d been down that road before), so I sat back, waited, and meanwhile congratulated myself on my polished prose.
I’d like to tell you my prose was polished to such a blinding sheen that when Will sent his suggestions and observations, his only question was why the book wasn’t twice as long. I’d like to tell you that, but I’ll save my fiction for my books.
This is not a complaint. But for any who still doubt that Macmillan New Writing edits their books, let me state this: My editor’s ‘light’ editing consisted of, at my count, 83 specific points, plus another dozen or so general remarks (mostly about acronyms) that brought the total near the century mark. About a hundred points to be addressed. All of this, mind you, prior to copyediting, so we’re not just quibbling about who/whom or unclear pronoun antecedents here.
I’d call that rather attentive editing for a ‘polished’ manuscript (and makes me worry what form ‘heavy’ editing might take.)
Most of these matters could be described as minor—a turn of phrase that rang false, or a description that called attention to itself, or something that might not be clear unless it were read with the attention a lawyer devotes to a contract. A couple of questions were the result of sheer hamhandedness on my part, plain old inattentive writing. And a few were major, affecting a portion of the storyline, and requiring corrective surgery on a whole section or even chapter.
[On top of those items, a few queries were the result of the transatlantic gulf in the English language. In dialogue I sometimes used slang only an American would likely understand. Solving these problems wasn’t straightforward: if an item of American slang is incomprehensible, one can’t put the corresponding British expression into the mouth of an American. An American male does not visit the loo. (He might hit the head, take a leak, see a man about a horse, drain the lizard, feed the goldfish, shake hands with Mister Snakey, or engage in any number of other creative euphemisms, but the ‘loo’ will not be mentioned.)]
There were also passages containing common US acronyms that, Across the Water, must have been as immediately comprehensible as Linear B (and just about as much fun to read).
After banging my head on the floor a few times (by now I was already prone), I arranged these comments in order from Little to Huge, and started addressing them.
Now, I don’t consider my words to be each one fair and gold, which the hand of man ought not to mar, but the sheer number of issues at first took me aback. Hence the horizontal, floor-bound position (see above).
After I started to work though them, however, I saw that every comment was warranted. And then it sank in on me: This guy was on my side. We both had the same goal. He liked the book, and was trying to make it better. In fact, he was working hard to make it better.
(I hear a chorus of, “Well, duhs,” out there. Pipe down.)
It helps that Will Atkins has a sharp sense of humor and yet is quite gentle (the two don’t often go together). When he found the occasional clunker of a sentence, he never asked (as well he might have) whether I’d typed it with my feet, or if instead I’d somehow employed my prehensile tail as well. In one case, where a sentence had all the grace of one of Hannibal’s war elephants tumbling down an Alp in full battle gear, Will merely asked “A little inelegant—can you rephrase?”
I could, I did, I’m glad.
Some points needed discussion to get us in alignment. In one case, after we both contributed our views, I was amused to find we had swapped postions, with Will suggesting we let the original text stand, and I insisting that it needed to be altered for clarity. (If a good editor is confused or bothered by a passage on first reading, there is a very good chance that something is amiss.)
The book's population changed slightly, too. At Will's suggestion, I deleted a minor character who was too obviously there for the convenience of the author (and I then had to figure out some less deus ex machina way of spinning that plot point). Another character who was often referred to got onstage time at Will's suggestion that she deserved a scene. Luckily for me, I already had such a scene (which I had cut, apparently unwisely, in the name of pacing). Will had managed to intuit a textural hole, even though I was sure there was none visible. And one entire piece of technology was obliterated, painlessly (and, if you can toss something painlessly, I think that suggests it oughtn't have been there in the first place).
All in all, it was a great experience, and we now have a better book--especially because of some of his structural suggestions.
So far, I’ve learned many small lessons, but two important ones I'd like to share. First, for those of you who were wondering, MNW indeed edits (and doesn’t charge you--see previous post).
Second, when an editor acquires your manuscript, he is on your side—or, if not on your side, at least on the side of your book, which is what's important. By the time you have an editor, you've probably been through so many adversarial interactions with the publishing industry that you are prepared for more of the same. Relax. Time to take off the Kevlar vest, lower your porcupine quills, realign those brainwaves from spiky beta to smooth alpha. You have an ally now.
Writing is a lonely affair; the editing process is your one chance to collaborate with someone, and, if you're lucky enough to get a good editor, this can be one of the most rewarding parts of writing the book.
Enjoy it. After you get up off the floor, that is.
*[The Peter Carey quote is from Ben Yagoda’s wonderful meditation on style, The Sound on the Page. Great book—and, rather appropriately, quite stylish itself.]
Jump to Part I