Wednesday, January 30, 2008


When I was young (sometime in the last couple of years, I suppose), I used to fear that that if my foot dangled outside the covers that some insidious being underneath the bed would stick a hypodermic needle in my heel and inject me with a sort of serum that would turn me into some hideous slobbering animal-human hybrid. Which is why, parents, you shouldn’t let your kiddies watch horror films.

As it turned out, this whole idea was silly. When I finally made the mistake of letting my foot dangle out and that creature under the bed injected me, I certainly didn’t turn into some hideous slobbering animal-human hybrid. Instead, I turned into a teenager--but that's another story.

Now, the whole foot/needle/bed thing could no doubt be interpreted according to Freud or Jung, but the real idea of people being forcibly transformed into human-animal hybrids came from seeing the B movie Atlantis: The Lost Continent when I was very young. It seems that in Atlantis, this is what they did with their slaves--after all, bull-human hybrids can do a lot more work than some guy. (Not sure if they eat hay or not--that bit wasn't clear.)

I didn't remember the film, or its title, though I did remember the experience of seeing a film that was so scary I could barely look at it. But a few years ago, in a video store, I saw the film sitting there, and it almost seemed to vibrate with menace. My god, I said, it's that movie...

Being (arguably) grown-up now, and able to face adult content as long as no animals are harmed, I decided to watch it.

A lot of my memories turned out to be more than a bit hazy. For example, they didn't change people with injections--they used some sort of glowing crystal. My tender five-year-old mind substituted needles because they are a whole lot scarier than crystals (ask any kindergartner). And the animal-human hybrid thing was a minor element in the film--though the creatures do rise up against their masters, which is an unambiguous warning against forcibly changing people into human-animal hybrids to serve as your slaves. Few films nowadays have such clear and applicable moral lessons. (A lot of good it did the rebels, too--they rise against their masters and then the whole frigging continent sinks.)

The really fascinating thing about seeing Atlantis again, though, was how amazingly unimpressive it was. Bad, in fact. Which was a little disappointing--it would be nice if something that for years was a lurking horror in the corner of your mind still maintained some of its potency, instead of turning out to be merely silly.

On the other hand, I recently spent some time with a volume of Poe--a preadolescent obsession of mine--and if anything, he is more disturbing now than when I was young. The eccentricity of his prose and his unconventional narrative structures were utterly wasted on me when I was nine years old.

I made the mistake--though there are worse ones to make--of reading too much too young. And now I find myself rereading Madame Bovary, or Huckleberry Finn, or Candide, and wondering what the hell I was thinking reading those before adulthood.

And what's my point? I'm not sure. But I think three things are clear:

1) A book or movie may be a very different thing depending on whether you encounter it at five or fifteen or fifty.

2) Enslaving human-animal hybrids to do your work is, like the current US national deficit, not a sustainable economic approach in the long term.

3) Just to be sure, you shouldn't let your foot dangle outside the covers.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Different Reason to Blog

Today, Patry Francis' thriller The Liar's Diary comes out in paperback, both in the US and in the UK. I've been reading it in hardback (obviously I can't have been reading it in paperback) and I'm enjoying it. It's a twisty psychological book--a family drama with one important outsider--and I am happy to say that I'm not sure where it's headed other than for trouble. (Which, of course, is where novels need to head.)

I'm only a minor voice amongst the more-than 300 people blogging about The Liar's Diary today; other bloggers include folks like Neil Gaiman, Khaled Hosseini, MJ Rose, and Jennifer Weiner. What's up with that? Patry Francis has undergone surgery (more than once) for an aggressive cancer, and, although her prognosis is good, she isn't really in a position to do much publicity work. So this post is a sort of vicarious book-tour-by-blog, pulled together by International Thriller Writers, Backspace, and Redroom. (What a good use of the internet...for a change.)

Patry also runs her own blog, and it's a good read; one of my favorite entries is about a roommate in the hospital. Like her book, the post itself goes some unexpected places.

The Liar's Diary has a slickly produced book trailer that is worth a gander, but I know all you uber-literati who visit this blog are above being impressed by such things. So instead I urge you to pick up a copy of the book itself. And, with that, I shall sign off: I'm still reading my own copy.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ants' Infected Red Rumps Look Yummy

Now is that one of the stranger phrases you've seen--Ants' Infected Red Rumps Look Yummy?

I had to triangulate on it: it's somewhere in the region bounded by annoying, intruiging, and mystifying. If it were the subject line of an e-mail, I'd be expecting Rolexes, Canadian pharmaceuiticals, or penis-enlargement products, but it's the headline for a science article. And, much to my surprise, it may come in handy in the book I'm writing. (Not the headline, the science in the article.)

But I'm not staking a claim. If any of the rest of you can use it for something, feel free. And I know some of you (Matt, Aliya, Neil, Charles) are prone to perpetrate short stories; need a title? (Need a premise?)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Lawrence Block (My favorite books on writing)

Lawrence Block, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and Spider, Spin Me a Web.

The Chandler-Hammett generation of popular writers came up through the pulp magazines to establish themselves as novelists. The next generation of writers, who first published in the 1950s and 1960s, still dashed off things for magazines, but their main route into the world of books was through mass-market “paperback originals” (a now virtually dead segment of publishing).

The appetite for mystery, soft-core sex, romance, and science fiction paperbacks once seemed inexhaustible. The pay was low, but so were the barriers to publication and the standards of craft. The paperback-original writers ‘learned on the job,’ and most of them wrote more than a dozen books a year. Out of this generation came some terrifically talented and long-lived writers: Elmore Leonard, Donald E. Westlake (Richard Stark), Brian Garfield, and, of course, Lawrence Block.

Block isn’t even sure how many volumes of fiction he has written. Checking the front matter of a recent novel of his gives a total of 55 novels and 7 collections of stories, but that doesn’t take into account his vast output of pseudonymous pulp in the 1950s. He only arrived on the radar screen of the critics in the early 1980s with Eight Million Ways to Die, and has since gone on to win almost every honor there is in the field of crime fiction, as well as heaping loads of praise from the literary establishment. He’s now 70 years old, and going from strength to strength.

In the middle of his career, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Block found the time to knock out a monthly column on fiction writing for Writer’s Digest, and it is these columns that are collected in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and Spider, Spin Me a Web. Although some of the material is a little dated (he frequently refers to some ancient device called a typewriter), most of it has aged remarkably well.

If John Gardner makes fiction seem like a somewhat mystical and perhaps burdensome occupation, Lawrence Block makes you feel like you’ve got a friend in the business. He cheerfully admits that writing fiction is a frustrating, crazy racket, but at the same time he makes it seem approachable. He’s honest about his own failings and fears, but explains them in such a jocular, casual way that he makes you relax about your own neuroses. Hey, you say to yourself, writing a novel is something even mortals can do.

Block claims to dislike the process of writing fiction (and remarks on how odd it is that most musicians love playing, and most painters love painting, but that so many authors get their buzz from having written rather than from writing), but he claims to have had fun writing his column, which he describes as being like dashing off a letter to a friend. It’s easy to believe he was having fun: he fools around with gimmicks, makes corny jokes, tosses in anecdotes, and seems utterly at ease.

Despite all the tomfoolery (who was this Tom fellow, anyhow?), a surprising number of writers I meet cite these as the most helpful books on writing. Because they were tossed off as columns they are concise, and because they were written over a stretch of years they cover a wide range of topics. It’s rare to come up with an issue Block hasn’t addressed at least once. The usual suspects—POV, conflict, motivation, flashbacks, characterization, verbs versus adverbs, dialogue—yeah, they’re all here, and so are the matters of the writing life, such as rejection, envy, fear, and determination.

But Block addresses some unexpected topics. Character names, for instance. Series characters as opposed to characters for stand-alone novels. Writing in the morning versus writing at night. When procrastination rather than writing is a good thing. Living on a writer’s income. Feigning expertise in subjects about which you know little. Pen names. Titles. A technique he chooses to call “Creative Plagiarism” (just to pique your interest). Whatever your issue, at some point Block probably wrote a column about it.

These are perfect books for those times when you have a few spare moments and want something that is bound to be engaging but short. But there’s also the salted nuts problem: after reading one of the short chapters in these two volumes, it’s all too easy to read another…and another…which is why these books keep getting reissued (the Kindle version of Telling Lies... just came out).

Well, there’s worse ways to spend your time.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Yesterdayville, Todayville

A minor if rather surreal moment from yesterday. An intern from a well-known literary agency (both the intern and the agency shall remain nameless) called, wanting to know my current e-mail address, as they were getting bouncebacks on the address they were using.

Since I haven't been fishing in the agent pool in a great while--we're talking years, here--I was somewhat nonplussed. And I remained utterly deficient in plusses as the intern explained that they had on hand a 50-page partial for my book Tomorrowville, and were wondering if I'd like to send them a full manuscript.

When I expressed some surprise, she informed me the 50-page partial was from 2002. Now, I'm pretty sure this agency is located in New York City, not in the Devil's Triangle, but you have to admit that's a long time for a partial to sit around in a slush pile in any location.

Insofar as I can figure out the situation, I sent the partial to an agent who used to be a partner in the firm but since left...leaving behind my submission. ("What's this thing they've used to level the legs on this table? Hey, look, guys--it's the opening chapters of a novel!")

What is weirder is that I am scheduled to have lunch with the publisher of a small press...who has been reading Tomorrowville and wants to chat with me about the book. Tomorrow.

What is weirder yet is that the literary-agency intern wants me to send them the full manuscript even if it isn't available for representation, "just to see if I might be a good fit for the agency." And, sure enough, after the phone call, an e-mail from the Managing Director of the agency arrived, at my current e-mail address, asking for the full.

As long-time readers of this blog probably recall, I have rather mixed feelings about agents, and have enjoyed being agent-free for the last year-and-a-half.

On the other hand, I have some books that are unlikely to ever see print unless I have an agent pushing them.

On the other other hand, even if I decide I need an agent, do I need an agent in the US, or should I look for one in the UK?

(NOTE: That last question isn't rhetorical.)

SEX SEX SEX (A Fingerpost ------------->)

Tim Stretton has posted a fine piece on his blog about writing sex scenes.

Lawrence Block once raised the question as to whether a sex scene could ever be gratuitous if it were in a sex novel. As I've been on the topic of books on writing, allow me to also point to Susie Bright's How to Write a Dirty Story.

Susie--of Susie Sexpert fame, founder of the women's magazine On Our Backs, and author of the fine short story Dan Quayle's Dick) would probably deny there is ever such a thing as gratuitous sex. (Alas, guys, Susie is a lesbian, and therefore not in our dating pool.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bad Idea Bears

You know the two in the picture above? No? Are you sure you don't know them?

Cute, huh? Yes. And Evil. Irredeemably Evil.

Those are the Bad Idea Bears from the musical Avenue Q. (Hilarious show, by the way; Sesame Street for adults.) The Bad Idea Bears--who have these sweet, happy, high-pitched, enthusiastic voices--arrive at important junctures in your life to give you, well, Bad Ideas.

("You should do something for yourself for a change--buy some beer!" "Buy a case! It's cheaper that way in the long run!" "Yay-yeee!")

("Quick, take her home!" "She's wasted!" "Yay-yeee!")

In the Comment trail a few posts back, Aliya noted that one of the biggest problems a writer faces is deciding what advice or input to ignore. Dead right. Some of those people out there are trying to be helpful, but aren't. And some of them are Bad Idea Bears.

Sartre claimed Hell is Other People. Maybe, though I've always been suspicious that he had it backwards, and that Hell is Me. Though I'm not certain on Sartre's proposition, I can guarantee you that not all Bad Idea Bears are Other People. I have a whole troop of them right here in my head, ready to help with important decisions. And, since writers make decision after decision, from little things like word choice to big ones like what to write next, the Bears have plenty of opportunities to chime in. If only I could learn to recognize their voices...

A few places the Bad Idea Bears are fond of visiting me:

Placing backstory. Sometimes the thing to do with backstory is merely hint. Sometimes it's best to stop and explain. Sometimes the most effective course is to wriggle it into dialogue and action. Sometimes you really need to Scooby-Doo your way into a full-up flashback. And sometimes you want to go into one of those interwoven flashback/narrative combos that has no name. The Bears have plenty of opinions about backstory.

Move Ahead versus Fix It Now. Think you might need to stop and reorganize the first three chapters into six? Or rewrite that one scene? Or should you keep your momentum going and quit making excuses to stop and fiddle about? Count on the Bears to have strong, and very plausible, opinions.

Facing New Challenges. You don't want to repeat yourself, do you? Climb a new mountain. Work at the limit of your abilities--hell, work beyond them! But wait--shouldn't you consolidate what you've already established? And what about the readers, who are expecting something new, but similar? (Hey, Kids: How many Bears can you find hiding in this picture?)

Innovation and Cross-Genre Options. You know what this detective novel needs right now? A vampire! No, no, wait--an alien!...Hey, I know--let's kill the protagonist! (Yay-yee!) Wait! What are you thinking? There are certain kinds of rules for these sorts of novels. Now, lessee, I have exactly three red herrings planted, and I need six...Did the Bears eat some of my herrings?

Style. Stephen King said that in his early writing a whole group of diverse stylistic influences (he cites Bradbury, Cain, and Lovecraft) melded together in his prose to create a "kind of hilarious stew." Blending the unblendable is always attractive. So are technical challenges--wouldn't first-person plural present tense omniscient give this book a distinctive feel ("We look down into the hearts and minds of those who go about on this planet, we peer into the souls of those who will soon die...")? Or second-person future-tense amnesiac ("You will be looking around the room. You will be wondering where you are. You will be wondering who you will be meaning by 'you'...") On the other hand, shying from a needed approach because it is odd is just plain cowardice, ya big chicken...Ah, yes: style is a favorite Bear playground.

Write or Think. Maybe I should go for a walk and work this out in my mind. No, maybe I should just sit down and write it. Hey, I have a great idea--let's put both on hold and write a blog entry instead...


Monday, January 21, 2008

Education Rears Its Head Once More

Emma Darwin, who makes a habit of thoughtful posts, has a nice piece on her blog about the never-ending topics of "rules" and whether or not writing can be taught.

I came across an interesting essay by Richard Ford that touches on the same topic. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that Ford is a graduate of the University of California Irvine Writing MFA program. Ford won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, as have two additional UCI MFA alumni, Michael Chabon and Whitney Otto. The MFA program at UCI also produced Alice Sebold, David Benioff, and bestselling mystery writers T. Jefferson Parker and Nevada Barr.)

Ford's essay opens with this paragraph:

Can you teach someone to write? I'm asked that a lot--usually by Europeans who think you can't, and who think Americans are school-crazy, and that we believe anything from small-engine repair to a faith in the deity can be cooked up into a syllabus and successfully imparted by tutelage with a degree at the end. These doubters--I suppose they're purists (always a rogue element in the arts)--believe that only mysterious talent, inspiration, and something else they're not entirely sure of can ever produce a real writer. "Real" is always stressed, as if Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Connor, Larry McMurtry and Raymond Carver, were all ersatz writers who would have been genuine only if they'd just stayed home and suffered, and not gone to Iowa or Stanford; and as if anything along the way to a writer's vocation could ever free any of us from a need for talent, inspiration, and something else not quite definable.

I think some of the debate on this topic results from the word "taught," which stirs up visions of a very specific course of instruction, with individual skills being presented, digested, and regurgitated; and lists of "rules" being photocopied and handed out. If such classes exist, I've never heard of them. Perhaps some classes in 'composition' are like that.

The writing "classes" I'm familiar with are all workshops--the literary equivalent of a studio class in art. The teacher may occasionally deliver a talk on some topic, or assign a reading that illustrates the many ways a story can be told, but most of the "class" is simply reading and critiquing participants' manuscripts--trying to see where they succeed and where they fail. (In my opinion, analyzing for yourself the infinite number of ways a manuscript can go wrong is the most useful part of a workshop; the feedback you get on your own writing may or may not be all that useful.)

There are surely some writers--Jack London comes to mind--who fit the solitary genius model (though I sometimes have the urge to edit his prose), but most writers in their formative years seem to have had other writers, and often a circle of writers, with whom they shared their work and argued about technique. (Although he made a point of minimizing the effect other writers had on his work, even Hemingway learned from others, and Gertrude Stein in particular affected his ideas of how prose and punctuation could be stripped down.)

A writing workshop is a sort of artificial writers circle. "Artificial" is a word that gets a bad rap nowadays; it's basic meaning is simply human-made (and it once meant "artful" and "cunning"). True, it lacks the spontaneity of, say, the circle that arose in 1920s Paris, but I'm not sure that's an altogether bad thing; you are likely to find more diversity in an "artificial" assembly of strangers than in a group who are drawn together by affinity.

Workshops seem to be especially useful for writers whose background is in English Literature, since Eng Lit makes some students (not all, of course) believe that theme, symbolism, message, and embedded cleverness are fiction's engines, when in fact these are outgrowths or ornaments of story. In the hurly-burly of a community-college writing workshop (the lower down the ladder of academic prsestige, the better), these sorts of writers will learn that it doesn't matter how vital their theme or how multilayered their symbolism may be if no one wants to read the damn story.

Is there such a thing as a bad workshop? Oh, assuredly--I enrolled in one once (and left after two sessions). There are also bad critique groups. And bad agents, and bad editors, and bad bestsellers. For that matter, there are bad math classes. If you don't have the "built-in, shock-proof BS detector" that Hemingway thought was a writer's most-needed gift, you'll be in trouble in a bad workshop. But you'll be in trouble in anything connected with writing anyhow.

Strictly speaking, I don't think writing workshops "teach" writing. What they do is look very closely at writing in progress, and at revision of that writing. Yes, you may be exposed to the occasional workshop cliche ("Show, don't tell"), but if the workshop is halfway decent, you'll also be exposed to writing that breaks those rules with great success.

As Bill Brohaugh once remarked, the only real rule is "Never start a sentence with a comma." (I've tried to figure out a justifiable way to do this. I'm still hoping to manage it some day--stay tuned.)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

I Have A Better Idea

Matt Curran notes on his blog that there is yet another reality show in the works about writing--this one an arrangement where minor celebrities will all attempt to write mystery novels.

Aside from the fact that there is probably nothing duller than watching someone write, I can't imagine why anyone would want to watch minor celebs do crime fiction. Casting-couch memoirs, maybe.

But I have a better idea. Let's get less obscure celebrities and force them to produce a work in the style of established writers with the same surname. We'll call it Separated at Birth. Imagine:

Harrison Ford writes a book in the style of Richard Ford (or maybe even Jamie Ford).

Mariah Carey writes a book in the style of Peter Carey.

Cameron Diaz writes a book in the style of Junot Diaz.

Jack Black writes a book in the style of Benjamin Black.

Stephen Fry writes a book in the style, Stephen Fry. Hmm. Guess it's been done.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

John Gardner (My favorite books on writing)

[Before we begin, let me make it clear that this is not the John Gardner who wrote the James Bond books after Ian Fleming died.]

John Gardner. The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist.

When the chemist Lavoisier was beheaded during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution, the mathematician LaGrange (of the L5 point beloved of science-fiction writers) said, “It took them only an instant to cut off that head, but France may not produce another like it in a century.”

John Gardner died in a motorcycle accident before he was fifty. He left behind a long line of marvelous novels. Critical opinion (and, more important, my opinion) is unanimous that his novella Grendel—which is Beowulf told from the monster’s point of view—is a masterpiece. Opinions are more divided on his other novels; his earlier works, such as The Sunlight Dialogues and Nickel Mountain, were widely praised and have a cult following, but I admire his later October Light and especially Mickelsson’s Ghosts (which the critics generally scorned).

Had his head not been (metaphorically) cut off, I think it would now stand up there next to writers like Bellow and Mailer—not perfect, and far from uncontroversial, but one of the major figures of twentieth-century literature. The fact that he got on the wrong side of the critical establishment by attacking Pynchon and Barth and a few other darlings as being “frigid” writers without a sense of moral duty in that highest of all callings, writing fiction, didn’t help him much. (I rather like Pynchon and Barth, as it happens, but I don’t find that the critical politics of the situation are terribly interesting: these are novels, not football teams.) I’m hoping Gardner will be resurrected in the 21st century the way forgotten Melville was in the 20th.

Nonetheless, Gardner made his mark on literature in other ways than his fiction. He was a master teacher, and fostered a number of important (if sometimes tragic) writers, notably Raymond Carver. And he also penned two of the most influential books—at least in the US—on writing. They need to be read as a pair; they really ought to be one book.

Gardner’s books on writing are frustrating. They are meandering, ranting, illuminating, digressive. The books are like having a brilliant, half-mad professor deliver a lecture with you trapped in the classroom: at moments, you want to argue, at other moments you wonder if he’s lost his mind, and then he hits you with a lightening bolt and you say, my god, this man is pure genius.

There are things no one has ever dealt with as well as Gardner: Psychic distance. Levels of diction. Genre (in the grander sense of tale, epic, etc.). Rhythm and prosody. And when you go to look up what you remember he said, you find that what you recalled as a chapter is in fact two pages at most.

But, beware. Gardner thinks fiction is a high calling, and that reaching out to strangers who may read your work carries a heavy moral burden. He reminds us that the reader who picks up your book may be dying of a terminal illness, or that the reader may be someone wronged who is teetering on the edge of forgiveness or vengeance, or that the reader may be bereaved or contemplating suicide or abortion or even just getting divorced or quitting a job. And here you come with your novel, portraying life through a particular lens, messing with their emotions…

On second thought, don’t read Gardner’s books on writing. The insights are marvelous, but they aren’t worth the guilt he loads on your back. Every time I write anything, I feel like I’m failing Father John.

I’d really recommend Grendel, though.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Quick Note on Rejection...

An ever-popular topic. If you haven't seen it before (and even if you have, come to think of it), here is a letter from an editor rejecting Ursula K. LeGuin's bestselling Left Hand of Darkness, which went on to win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Why Read Books On Writing, Anyhow?

Suroopa Mukherjee, who penned Across the Mystic Shore, asked me this question (rather less bluntly) in the Comment trail.

To tell the truth, I don't particularly recommend anyone read books on writing unless they are so inclined. They are often repetitive (except where they are contradictory). And I am very skeptical as to whether someone can teach you to write a novel.

I don't think art can be taught. But I do think that craft can be taught, and that art employs craft.

The books on writing I enjoy most are down-to-earth discussions of how writers go about their work and how they feel facing the blank page each day. To some extent, what I'm wondering is, "Does anyone else have this problem?" and "Do real writers ever feel this way?" And the answers are always "Yes" and "Yes."

Rob Siders already mentioned Lawrence Block (author of the brilliant Eight Million Ways to Die, which is as good as anything Chandler or Hammett ever wrote). Block is the craft guy par excellence because he wrote a zillion short essays for Writer's Digest, and all of them are tightly focused. For example, did you ever wonder about the problem of withholding information from the reader while writing in first person? Block has an essay on the topic. Want a discussion of different ways to drop into a flashback? Block has an essay on that, too.

But those are little flourishes. If you haven't read enough novels and haven't spent enough time writing, and you don't have a story to tell, none of those tricks will do you any good.

But there is also the aspect of hearing people talk about the topic of writing without making it seem as though they are stealing fire from the gods. For me, taking some of the grand mystery out of the process is vital. In the movie All That Jazz, the fictional director Joe Gideon asks, "Does Stanley Kubrick ever have days like this?"

I don't know how Stanley Kubrick felt. But I have to tell you it was a relief to read an essay where Joyce Carol Oates said that she wrote both when she felt inspired and at other times when her "soul felt as thin as a playing card," and that she had discovered that how she felt about her writing at the time she was doing it wasn't any indicator of quality.

I suppose it's rather adolescent of me. I want to know if how I am is, well, you know...normal. (For a writer, that is.) And it is through books on writing that I've discovered almost all writers lack confidence and gnaw on their knuckles, and, more important, that they work in every conceivable way: planning in immense detail or plunging right in, rewriting every line of the first draft or never going to the next page until the current page is perfect, writing any damn thing and then cutting later or writing minimalist and then fleshing out later. Standing up or sitting down or laying down: as the Barenaked Ladies song says, It's All Been Done Before. (Books on writing also prepared me for the world of rejection a writer must face, which is a great surprise to many.)

Above all, books on writing are a chance to sit and listen to talented people talk about their craft, and that has always been fascinating to me (even when it's a craft I don't practice). I'll probably never meet most of the writers I read, and in many cases the only place we could meet would be in some afterlife, as so many of them predeceased me. And, sure, I'll know them mainly through their art. But I'm so glad that Poe, for example, bothered to set down his thoughts on writing. Are his essays on writing as important as his stories? No. But the essays are as close as I'll ever get to sitting down and buying him a drink.

And if anyone ever needed me to buy him a drink, it was good old Edgar.

Uh-oh. Another series of posts.

Way back in June, Cate Sweeney (of Selfish Jean fame) was about to teach a workshop, and polled various folks about their favorite books on writing. In my case, this had roughly the same effect as asking an apartment-bound dog if he’d like to go for a walk. I bounded about, knocked over lamps, and frantically tried to find my leash. I even mailed her three books of which I had duplicates. (Two of them I had in paperback, then found them used in hardback, and the third…oh, why am I explaining this?)

For, you see, I read a lot of books about writing. More than you can imagine. Especially when I was working at my first novel, I found them a great thing for filling in spare moments. (Hey, we don’t watch TV—our set is hooked only to our DVD player, and has no cable or even antenna—so you gotta do something.)

Admittedly, most books on writing aren’t very good, and some of them are downright wrongheaded. But even those are fun, because of the furious arguments I have in my mind with the author—which often serves to clarify my perspective.

There is also the phenomenon, which I recognize from yoga classes, where an instructor will say something that hits me like a sharp slap. (Usually it’s something like, “The purpose of this posture is to stretch your ankles. Your forehead isn’t connected to your ankles. Scrunching up your forehead won’t help.”) When I tell her after class how helpful it was, and ask why she never mentioned it before, she usually says, “What do you mean? I always say that.” So, sometimes I apparently don’t hear things the first ten thousand times. And sometimes I don’t hear what books say, either, until fifty books have told me the same thing.

I don’t really know how many books I’ve read on the topic.

(Though I could come up with a damn good guess just by counting them. Anyhow, less than 200, but more than 100. Unlike most people, I find nonfiction to be more effortless to read than fiction, because with nonfiction I can pick it up, set it down, pick it up again, read it for five minutes while waiting for a phone call. I hate doing that with a novel.)

So, I plan to tell you—even though you didn’t ask—though Cate foolishly did—what my dozen favorite books on writing are.

I need to issue a disclaimer, however. I don’t like books that assign me “exercises”; if we aren’t playing for keeps, I find it hard to give a damn, so I don’t do exercises. And I’m not crazy about ‘inspirational’ stuff, like Writing Down the Bones or Let the Crazy Child Write, though I recognize they are the sort of thing some people like best. What I really enjoy is, well, shoptalk—where working writers share what they know as if you’ve gone out for a beer together. So my selection is very biased indeed.

And, to add a second disclaimer, I plan to cheat. In some cases, two or more books by the same author will be treated as a single unit. This isn’t one of those ‘desert island’ things.

And even if it were, I’d still probably cheat. (Did I ever mention that I spent a lot of time in juvenile correction facilities as a youth for an obscure crime labeled "incorrigibility"? Well, okay, and for some other things, too.)

Oh, and if anyone would like to toss in their own suggestions, please do. Some time back, Neil Ayres recommended Mat Coward's Success...and How to Avoid It, and I've been grateful ever since. (And I see that Matt Curran has posted about a favorite book of his which I now plan to track down.)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Hotel Rooms

I’m writing this from a hotel room in Washington, DC, where I’ll be ensconced until the end of next week. Well, actually I'll be going out occasionally, mostly to the Library of Congress. (I've read most of the books in my library. That's a significant dfference between me and Congress.)

I love writing in hotel rooms. There are no undone chores to distract me, no ringing telephone, no visitors at the door (once the DND sign is in place), and, above all, almost none of my stuff.

Some people are comforted by their knickknacks, or have the perfect spot that looks out onto a garden. Give me a hotel room any day, and the more sterile and anonymous, the better. Hotel rooms are a piece of time and space that has been extracted from the daily rhythm of life: Welcome to Spaceship Marriott.

I gather I’m not entirely alone in this. I’ve read that Georges Simenon, one of the world’s most prolific novelists (somewhere between 300 and 400 novels) wrote all his novels in hotels, banging them out in marathon writing stints of two to four weeks. In fact, he had it down to a routine: he’d write out a few notes on the project, and then have his doctor give him a physical. If he was pronounced unfit for the task, he’d take a few weeks of exercise and sound diet first; if pronounced fit, he’d hole up in a hotel, usually a different one each time, and bang out that book.

To digress, part of the reason for this medical caution was that his marathons were conducted under the influence of amphetamines—in other words, he was wired off his nut the whole time. That’s mid-20th-century writing’s little secret. Any book on writing will caution you that you aren’t William Burroughs, and that all those alcoholic and drug-addicted writers out there wrote in spite of the goodies, not because of them—and, moreover, that none of these people wrote under the influence. Strictly an after-hours thing.

Well, that’s poppycock. (We think of poppycock as a rather prim little word, but it’s from the Dutch pappekak, variously translated as either “soft shit,” or, according to the latest OED update, "doll's shit." A bit more vivid when it’s meaning is known, eh?) Simenon was far from alone in this. Jack Kerouac was usually wired when he wasn’t drinking or smoking pot. Anthony Burgess wrote on amphetamines with a fifth of gin at his elbow (is that a disgusting combination, or what?); this no doubt explains all of his references to how hard writing had been on his health. Philip K. Dick is associated in the public mind with hallucinogens, but in fact he only took LSD once (and didn’t have a nice time). The fact he was a voracious speedfreak goes a long way toward explaining the pervasive paranoia of his novels. Lawrence Block once wrote a novel in two days, and though he doesn’t say that he had pharmacological assistance, he did this at a time when most of the writers in New York were swallowing crosstops by the handful, so I have my suspicions.

By the end of the sixties, speed was following the course of all illicit drugs, moving from a user group of artists and intellectuals on down to the colleges and finally out to the trailer parks and motorcyle gangs.

And, as always happens with illegal substances, the potency increased exponentially. Before Prohibition, America was a beer-and-wine country; within a few years, it had been transformed into a hard-liquor country. Why smuggle wagonloads of beer from Canada when you can get the same profit from a trunkful of vodka? If any of the reefer-smoking jazz greats of the fifties were handed a spliff of modern marijuana, they’d take two puffs and fall off the stage. So it was with amphetamines: by the time it hit the mass-market underclass it was no longer little Benzedrine and Dexedrine tablets, but grams of crystal meth.

As US laws became more draconian, writers became more circumspect, but there is no doubt that the seventies and eighties were the era of cocaine. The only novelist who has been forthright about this is Stephen King, who wrote his best books striding along on a diet of beer and Peruvian marching powder, but I’m morally certain that most of the eighties New-Yorky brat-pack-novelist crowd had their beaks in the bag while they were working. Being coked out is the only possible excuse for some of those books.

Now, of course, the coke-addled novelist is no longer fashionable, and cocaine has moved onto the streets as the more-bang-for-your-buck crack. Somehow meth and crack don’t seem like the way to achieve a significant but studious buzz; it’s like cutting butter with a chainsaw. Not to mention that to procure said substances, you no longer deal with guys named Chip who live in dorm rooms, but guys named Ice Cream who carry Uzis.

What was I talking about? Oh, yeah. Writing in hotel rooms. Well, I’m doing it, and it makes me more productive than normal, but we aren’t going to be seeing any two-week novels here. The days of Simenon are long gone, and Espresso and Zinfandel (preferably not at the same time—or, if you can’t manage that, at least not in the same cup) don’t have the same effects. Even in hotel rooms.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Angst essen Seele auf

Oh, sorry. That's a Fassbinder movie, isn't it? Well, so what? It's still a good title for this post.

As we've discussed elsewhere, writing for me is an anxious process. Oh, when I’m in the zone, I don’t consciously feel the anxiety; I just feel hyperalert. Afterwards, however, I realize my whole body has been rigid for the past three hours.

The rest of the time, when I’m not at the keyboard, the anxiety is all too apparent. I worry when I walk from place to place. I worry when I wake up at 3 AM. I worry in a Doctor-Suess Green-Eggs-and-Ham rhyming-couplet sort of way (Would you worry in the rain? Would you worry on a train?…). And I don’t have only the usual writerly worries (e.g. I suck) or the accompanying self-aggrandizing worries (e.g. I suck on a heretofore-unseen, colossal scale) or the sidebar paranoid schizophrenic worries (e.g. Is somebody putting something in my toothpaste?). Oh, sure, I have all of those (and my toothpaste has been tasting odd of late), but in addition I have any number of worries that are more specific to the work in progress.

Novelist Lawrence Block has long advocated writing down one’s fears about a project so as to exorcise them. Here's seventeen of them. There's more where these come from.

1) This book isn’t enough like my previous book.

2) This book is too much like my previous book.

3) I don’t know where this is headed, and as usual I’m floundering.

4) I think I know where this is headed, but I don’t know how to get there.

5) I think I know where this is headed and I’m taking too long to get there.

6) I think I know where this is headed and it isn’t worth getting there.

7) I have too many points of view and that makes the story diffuse. (One editor rejecting my previous book noted that a thriller required a “hero” to “lead the narrative charge,” and that these "ensemble" things might be all very well in other genres, but not in this one. She was wrong, but her comments still haunt me.)

8) I have too few points of view, and that makes to story too cramped.

9) I have the right number of points of view, but they are from the wrong characters.

10) The chapters are too long, too long, tooooo lonnnnnnngggg…(They are. They really are. I think.)

11) I’m plunging forward too rapidly and need to think this through more.

12) I’m thinking too hard and second-guessing myself and need to plunge forward to get some momentum.

13) The story elements and situations are almost cliché.

14) The story elements and situations are too offbeat to be of interest.

15) The main character is too passive, and since the story is largely about him overcoming his passivity and confronting his past, this flaw can’t be remedied and the whole edifice is being built on sand and I’m writing a story that can’t be told. By anyone. Ever.

16) Every major character has a major backstory that needs to come out and I'm not sure how the hell I'm going to manage it, and in fact I probably can't.

17) I don’t know enough about this topic to write about it. In fact, who the hell do I think I am, writing about this topic in the first place? To write about this topic effectively, I’d have to learn five foreign languages (three of them spoken only by obscure jungle tribes), and spend several months--no, make that years--traveling, and get a PhD in Cultural Anthropology. And one in Biology. And Ecology. And History.

There. Though I'm not sure I've exorcized my fears. Exercised them, more likely, and they'll come jogging back up to my door, fitter and glowing with health.

Was that the doorbell?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Roger Goes Pro

Now, here's a real newsflash: Roger (RN) Morris has announced that he has retired from his dayjob to become a fulltime writer. Not bad for a fellow who published his first novel less than two years ago. Indeed, on reflection, not bad for anyone in this crazy business.

Then again, I can't think of anyone more deserving.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Another Fingerpost -------->

The redoubtable Rob (in Denver) Siders suggested in the Comment trail that I ought to hie myself over to 101 Reasons to Stop Writing, and I, being highly suggestible and having other things I ought to be attending to, immediately did so.

It's a pretty funny site, in a gallows-humor sort of way. The Reasons themselves are a work-in-progress (only 16 of them when I visited), but they are an equal-opportunity snarkfest, heaping opprobrium on writers published and unpublished alike. There is also a wonderfully misinformative On This Day section, a hilarious set of Demotivator Posters ("GENEROSITY: Don't give copies of your book to your friends or family. You'll halve your market."), and a fine WebStore selling demotivational buttons, cards, t-shirts, and posters.

I wouldn't recommend a visit if you're already depressed.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Turkey City Lexicon

In relation to this topic, before I begin let me mention that some time back Emma Darwin had an excellent post about "rules of writing" over on her blog...

I've bemoaned before the irony that writers have so little terminology to describe their craft. I'd like to take a moment to pause and acknowledge the valiant efforts of the Turkey City Science Fiction Workshop, in Austin, Texas (back in the late 1980s) to codify some of the terms of art.

Of course, being devoted to science fiction, some of their terminology is rather genre-specific. For example:

Squid on the Mantelpiece

Chekhov said that if there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third. In other words, a plot element should be deployed in a timely fashion and with proper dramatic emphasis. However, in SF plotting the MacGuffins are often so overwhelming that they cause conventional plot structures to collapse. It's hard to properly dramatize, say, the domestic effects of Dad's bank overdraft when a giant writhing kraken is levelling the city. This mismatch between the conventional dramatic proprieties and SF's extreme, grotesque, or visionary thematics is known as the "squid on the mantelpiece."

I've had occasion to discuss Chekhov's 'gun over the mantelpiece' in critiquing some manuscripts; but I have to say that the 'Squid on the mantelpiece' hasn't come up. Nonetheless, Turkey City did identify some concepts of general utility. (Not all of these were original with Turkey City, by the way; in many cases they collected the concepts, and in some cases provided the name.)

"As You Know Bob"

A pernicious form of info-dump through dialogue, in which characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up-to-speed. This very common technique is also known as "Rod and Don dialogue" (attr. Damon Knight) or "maid and butler dialogue" (attr Algis Budrys).

I'm not sure where the term As-You-Know-Bob originated--might have been Turkey City--but this one has pretty wide currency. I find it far more annoying than simply having the author explain, but fear of exposition results in more horrific As-You-Know-Bob passages every year.


A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit. " 'Let's get out of here,' he said, urging her to leave."

"Countersinking" is a very useful term because you see it done so often: "I never want to see you again," she screamed. She was really mad. It's nice to have a single word to describe it, otherwise you have to explain it in detail, sometimes with the aid of handpuppets.

Funny-hat characterization

A character distinguished by a single identifying tag, such as odd headgear, a limp, a lisp, a parrot on his shoulder, etc.

Oh my, have I seen a lot of that...and for that matter, a lot of this, too:

Not Simultaneous

The mis-use of the present participle is a common structural sentence-fault for beginning writers. "Putting his key in the door, he leapt up the stairs and got his revolver out of the bureau." Alas, our hero couldn't do this even if his arms were forty feet long. This fault shades into "Ing Disease," the tendency to pepper sentences with words ending in "-ing," a grammatical construction which tends to confuse the proper sequence of events. (Attr. Damon Knight)

Turkey City missed mentioning a common Not Simultaneous error, which usually begin with an "as" clause: As he shut the door of the car, he scrabbled through the glove box, found her address book, and scanned through the B's until he found Boyd's telephone number. Slow door shutting there...

These are just the most useful terms, but they are by no means the most amusing; Turkey City reserved their funniest labels for errors that are more specific to science fiction. If you care about such things, or just want a good laugh, visit The Turkey City Lexicon page.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Where I Am, I Think...

The first day of a new year. I'm downstairs tapping at a keyboard to make this entry, though I ought to be upstairs tapping at the other (non-internet-connected) keyboard and adding pages to my novel. But there's people in the guest bedroom...and that's where my other (non-internet-connected-and-therefore-used-for-writing-so-I'm-not-tempted-to-check- e-mail-or-fiddle-about) computer lives. So I won't be novelizing until later in the day.

What I'm working on is a sort of follow-on to Shock and Awe...after a fashion. It doesn't use any of the same characters. And it isn't on the same topic. And the locations are different. And none of it happens at sea (at least as far as I can anticipate, which isn't very far).

So how's this a follow-on? Hmm. Dunno. I guess the flavor is vaguely the same. It's about political matters that disturb me (though I can't really see where it's headed yet). It's third-person multi-POV. It's a little on the grim side. And it's requiring a preposterous amount of research, including a whopping great amount of information about climbing trees. In fact, I may have to go to tree-climbing school (yes, there are such institutions, one in Atlanta and one in Oregon). Or I may just read about it and fake it. (We're all still liars here, right?)

So I'm 62 pages in, four POVs from four very different people, all of whom cart along massive backstories that I haven't really worked into the narrative yet. As one of the characters in the film This is Spinal Tap notes, "There's a thin line between clever and stupid." I'm probably balanced somewhere on that line. Perhaps toppling off of it.

Meanwhile, over the Christmas break, I was informed that I and my business partners had won an unlikely bid on a consulting project. And naturally this project has a short timeline--90 days, starting some time soon. The consulting study is for an energy project in Siberia. I don't think it requires travel (though I hear Vladivostok is lovely in February)...

Juggling this project and the book is going to be quite, well, to use a neutral word, interesting.

But, then, there's nothing like having a major work overcommitment to make your writing imagination explode with ideas you don't have time to explore. So I'll assume this is a blessing. (Just don't be surprised if suddenly my novel shifts locale to Siberia.)