Earned by “Colorful Whateverisms,” the lead piece of short fiction in my latest collection “Parts Department.”
Earned by “Colorful Whateverisms,” the lead piece of short fiction in my latest collection “Parts Department.”
The doldrums require patience and, among other things, a stronger sense of audacity to break free.
Who’s to say when and if audacity to write returns.
Reading-wise, it’s now a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel called “Autumn of the Patriarch.” And so far I’m staying with it, interested in both its content and style. It’s helped.
Wading in full-explosion novels seems to re-kindle the connections between reading something creative and launching an effort to do it oneself.
(purpose of this blurb was to continue this series of posts on the May-June blues as muttered in installments below).
Where are the usual book reports? And where is my latest novel draft?
Recent bouts of unsatisfied reading with stops and starts. Somehow it’s tied to not writing. Feeling frustrated with both activities has extended the dry spell. It’s been difficult to get to the Place.
Being hung up is not an unusual situation for a writer. There are many factors.
Writers often need some remedy or sea change to get back to re–find the vibrancy and focus of the Place.
But of course getting there can be complicated. Vows and affirmations don’t make it so.
Since the first post (below) of this string, I’ve read part of “Lila” by Robert Pirsig. Wish it were otherwise, but couldn’t stick with the conflation of fictional narrative and philosophic essay. I had to jump to text that’s more cleansing like by Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard, where “sentences say what they need to say and leave the stage.”
Books are turning over fast lately. Lots of rejections. The table has been empty more often than not. Nothing has hit it for me.
Hoped it would be some PD James but as good a writer as she is, I just couldn’t hang with the whole book. There was that loudening sense of being in a movie theater, trapped in another of Hollywood’s cloying middle sections that they pawn off in the name of character development.
Tried re-reading some bookcase faves but due to my distraction, they left me in the same cotton-headed condition. Ventured back to Proust and went about fifty pages deep in “Guermantes Way” – no harm done. Actually the narrative was getting better, but after the first two big ones, it’s time to take a long Marcel break.
I went to “Solitudes” by an old Spanish poet named Luis Góngora. It’s loaded down with classical myths material, not the kind of content I care too much for, but his language and poet’s toolbox are remarkable. He’s from John Donne days. His “Gongorisms” are extended conceits with (back then) radical use of imagery and metaphor.
After a few days of blah’s approaching illness, plus some bedrest and some magazines, I picked up Sartre’s novel “Nausea” again.
Even in cheerful Florida one can get the yips.
Each time Sartre’s book gets better. Crisper. Bleaker. Sadder…and truer, if you have journeyed down the road and can recognize or are experienced in existential dread.
1. You have to know how to work yourself out of trouble.
2. Your novel should have some sort of spinal cord, supporting and relaying things from beginning to end.
3. It’s possible there is a more engaging opening farther inside the first few chapters of your draft. One that can be moved forward to replace the opening you originally had in mind.
4. During revision…To rearrange or re-word problematic parts is normal and safe. To compose something new has risks and can be more rewarding.
5. No matter what, you have to stay on top of your material and be its boss.
6. A good novel has a spine (see #2) and is layered with tension and resolution. If artful, it’s threaded with recurrent themes, and exhibits subtle moments of symmetry like music (or math).
7. Writing a brief description or elevator pitch should not be all that difficult.
8 .The ending of a novel is best written all at once in a crazed and feverish state.
The premise is that we can find at the center of a novel’s manuscript a scene that defines what the story is all about. And within that scene there is often a particular moment that brings theme, plot, and character into focus, sometimes as bright and faceted as a diamond. Bell calls it a “look in the mirror moment.” His examples help explain what he means, and they are convincing.
It is this center moment that, during revision, a writer can rewrite towards or away from, before and after. It is a fulcrum point, the center nougat of the candy. Which is why Bell’s book is of considerable value to a novelist stuck in the throes of a long revision, unable to fix the path from page one to The End. Bell’s little secret finds the heart, if indeed it’s there. I don’t imagine any author consciously produces a mid-point that represents his entire book. It just happens. Bell uses the term magic.
I was surprised as hell to find the middle moment in my own comparatively unstructured draft. I divided the page count by two and there it was, obvious and lucid – my book’s thematic moment. Not perfect and absolute but pretty damn close. This was inspiring to say the least, as some sort of wizardry affirmation that my book does have a heart. This discovery has been very helpful in the surrounding revisions before and after that point. For this magic trick, I’d buy Mr. Bell a drink if I ever ran into him.
Published in 1927, it is definitely not a book of quick-reference tenets set in boldface font, like we see in contemporary writing guides. Forster’s aspects are just that: aspects or features employed in famous novels that can be perceived and patiently considered, even modeled, by the growingly astute (and eventually graying) reader-slash-writer.
The range goes from what is story to the necessary ingredients, such as the required vitality of rounded characters and their expression through actions, to the intent of the whole and its weight by design. We get a few instructive gems along the way:
“The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.
Consider what Forster discusses in the “rhythm” of a novel. Similar to the repeating “dididdy dum” of Beethoven’s Fifth, prose can have a recurring beat (cf. Kerouac and jazz). In masterwork novels, deeper rhythms are also at play and harder to recognize. These are persisting images or actions that play to our cognizance of theme, like symphonic leitmotifs in language. Proust, as shown in an example, does this sort of thing with food and plants and snippets of a sonata, items that are weaved into the overall product as touch-points to something resonant and more centrally important – something artfully made familiar to us.
Forster says there are novels of fantasy and novels of prophecy, and the second is higher in his regard because it addresses universal themes and reaches mythic proportions. His commentary and examples are intriguing, He invites us to read the great books and brings them alive by argument and illustration.
Forster dishes about major novels of his time and some prior to, including Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights with a brooding milieu that is itself the ultimate mythic character; Joyce’s Ulysses (he calls it mud-slinging at traditional novel values); DH Lawrence (gets his high esteem as “prophecy” writing); character Scheherazade (the ideal story presenter using cause and effect plus suspense); George Eliot (grand, but valued more by quantity than artfulness); Melville (immense and grand, and the novel Moby Dick is a whaling yarn sandwiched by poetry).
By book’s end we have taken a survey course on Essentials of a Novel and can re-join Forster’s class and learn more on each annual visit. Provided we re-read carefuly and study in light of our own writing. His afterword contains anxiety about the future of the form, which of course still exists nearly ninety years later. Maybe the ongoing strength and perpetuity of the novel is due to on-going honor paid to many of the aspects described. Forster’s documentation is therefore, among other virtues, heroic.
From Walter Mosley’s writing handbook, it’s an exercise ostensibly to get rid of flat prose or to create something out of nothing. Mosley doesn’t like non-contributing sentences. It’s the only specific workshop type of lesson he includes in his book. It’s subtle. At first I wasn’t sure where he meant us to go. Then I did. It has power and nuance, this lesson of his.
Example of flaccid prose Mosley presents:
I went to the store and bought a dozen apples. After that I came home and decided to call Marion. She told me that she was busy and so she couldn’t make it to the dance.
Exercise Mosley proposes: “…Take these three sentences and turn them into something more. Consider the character who is speaking, the potential drama behind Marion’s reason for not going to the dance, the missing details, and the misconnections. From this, make the lines into some kind of beginning for a novel. Don’t write more than a page. Pretend that it was written by some writer friend who wants to tell a story but is lost somehow.”
1. MYSTERIES, edited by Sue Grafton
Collected essays composed by bigtime mystery authors. The tone sometimes seems self-congratulatory for doing what they do so well. I was surprised to read that their craft is as complex as atomic science, and their writers’ club is quite rigid and exclusive. Careful reading will reveal some practices helpful to us serfs and hacks out here who would dare now to even try after reading these bits of advice from on high. I put it in the trashcan, sorry.
2. MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER by Elizabeth Lyon
Pretty good. Lots of padding but has useful sections with solid, conventional advice. Well written and practical, not meant as rah-rah. For the lack of rah-rah I give it a big rah.
3. Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
Readable and re-readable for life, a sort of Dhammapada handbook for good mechanics and fundamentally healthy attitudes about writing. Looking at it from fresh angles. Five stars. Where did this guy come from?
List of machines used for professional and personal endeavors from 1972 to the present.
In his recent interview on PBS, Philip Roth made a passing comment about Saul Bellows’ late-in-life shift to writing short novels. He described the form as a novel in which the author chooses to condense a storyline rather than expand it. For an aging writer who is being efficient with the energies he has left, the short form is logical, Roth admitted. But something in his tone seemed to indicate he was less than convinced about the short form’s artistic merits, or if it was his vehicle of choice.
A mixed bag of reactions in my brain:
If the online literary journals are to be believed , writing compressed fictional pieces is revolutionary and the future. Most posted vignettes are often less than 1000 words, or less than 500; in some cases they are limited to three or six sentences. One I saw recently was a contest with ten words max. It’s like a Battle of Cleverness.
Sudden fiction or flash fiction is an internet product, a celebration of economy of scope, style and narration. And may as well throw in poetic devices, too. It’s fast reading, read fast by rapid-decision editors for fast webzines for digestion by fast-moving users with fast iPads in our fast and compressed modern times, etcetera.
But at the core of the product itself, flash fiction is not really new and revolutionary. It’s not that far removed from, say, what Hemingway was doing in “Hills Like White Elephants.” Or Brautigan was doing almost fifty years ago in “Trout Fishing in America.”
Flash fiction strives for pure, lean impact. Evocative and as far from exhaustive as possible. Unfortunately many flash fiction pieces tend to sound strained, over-manipulated, ambiguous, or fall into the “way too precious” trap. The ones in present tense (and/or second person You) are especially cloying, like someone boring us with a breathless dream account. Yet many are real gems that carry a sparkle no matter how many re-reads, and these rise above those done by magic tricks with words that wow momentarily then are forgotten.
What the proponents of flash fiction don’t show or even broach on their sites, and for expedience sake can’t, is how the novel form is affected by this new direction of less is better.
Getting back to the short novel, what is it? There are the usual suspects as examples, masterpieces like Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Pynchon’s “Crying of Lot 49,” Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Or some will include “The Great Gatsby” or “Catcher in the Rye.” The difference is, if we go with the generally accepted figure of 50,000 words plus equals a novel, those last two don’t count as short novels. But they do achieve an end by the same means: streamlining the story and its delivery in a highly artful and stylized way. Another that comes to mind, a personal favorite, is Rick Barthelme’s “Tracer,” a masterfully written short novel that is seamless and presented without a sense of author’s effort.
Within this venture of writing by contraction and condensing or compressing, whatever you call it, there are hundreds of toolsets at the writer’s disposal.
Kurt Vonnegut could present a novel with expansive action and concepts via his genius of writing pithy sentences and employing white space. His thing was stylistic compression, not an abbreviation of storyline. “So it goes.”
Dave Eggers does it the other way, at the highest level, with a compressed storyline in “Hologram for a King.” The scope of actual drama of time and place are limited (similar to Camus’ “The Stranger”). The payoff comes in character portrayal and mood that feels more like theatre than a bound book.
I love to read Roberto Bolaño because so many of his sentences are crafted to be interesting and filled with story. It is their density, their PSI that draws me in. I can read one of his short stories (and sometimes even just a page of one) and feel as if I’ve read a novel. He transmits an enormous amount of information. There are enough particularities to keep things visual and us the readers engaged. But there is no fluff, none of the vast amount of description (“the twittering birds”) and development we run across in a 500-page novel.
Each has its merits, the expansive and the brief. Was Roth hinting at something else? What defines a short novel? Will flash fiction influence its presentation and what this new breed of insta-readers want? Is there something new going with short novels? A new sub-genre yet to evolve?
(to be revisited)
The following is my take-away from the March 2013 issue interview with Richard Todd and Tracy Kidder, plugging their new book “Good Prose,” which is ostensibly a book about writing non-fiction. The interviewer claims what the authors say can also be helpful in writing fiction, and certain discussion aspects lean in that direction. In the magazine article, it is fuzzy as to how much the guys were talking about non-fiction as opposed to novels. The reader has to filter and decide.
Here are some points Todd and Kidder made (or how I perceive them):
1. Old, established material is not always an asset. It can be a liability. Sometimes it’s cathartic to blow it up and start anew.
2. POV is critical for the narrative tone and it’s advisable to experiment with different approaches.
3. Most writers mistakenly use 1st person POV and haven’t given it adequate consideration. Most should try 3rd.
4. A 1st person narrator can sometimes function better as a guide. Too often he/she is absorbed with writing about self.
5. An outside editor’s opinion can help spot what is wrong in a draft, but the implication is, it only helps if the suggestion is cleverly pointed and resonant.
6. It’s important to keep proportions of content balanced, not too much on one person or topic (a basic lesson in argument).
7. Research works, but its organizational methods and usage varies among writers and is a matter of what works.
8. Writers can have varying quotients of talent but talent alone is not enough to sustain them. Like musicians, they must practice and work, and even harder if lacking natural ability.
9. Writing in stock prose and stale language is a dead end. Writers who write in “institutionalese” are cloaking their material in safe means of expression and are not truly getting across what they want to say. Those who avoid institutionalese are really writing.
10. Importance of authenticity coming across in one’s writing. If parroting or talking second-hand, the writing loses the honest/authentic factor.
The subtitle “How to Edit Yourself into Print” provides a warning: today’s book publishing agents look for copy that has been skillfully pre-edited before it gets to them. The old days when house editors lended a hand are gone. More than ever, they say, one is wise to learn to DIY. Or maybe it’s SEY (Self-Edit Yourself).
Handsomely produced and over-abundant in verbiage, the content provides maxims and guidelines. It’s familiar ground. Nothing about it strikes me as the Go-to book on the SEY process. Instead, most of the topics point back to the initial creative writing process. This more or less says to me, you need to make all these edits because you didn’t write well in the first place, and…so now, let us now discuss how to write.
The thrust of this book lacks clear distinction between fixing a draft (which I had hoped it would, like a field manual I can refer to when I redline) and writing a draft. Come on, guys. Even if we didn’t know what the main POVs are, or how to write dialog, are these really self-editing topics?
What if all the bugaboos the authors talk about were absent and things were written well in our drafts? What other editing advice do the authors provide? There’s got to be more to editing than fixing show vs. tell passages (pretty shopworn advice, that one is, and you beat it to death. We’re not all screenplay writers out here). And I think most of us know how to break up dialog and we can usually spot a dangling participle. Seems we could get some more pointed writing tricks of the trade. Enlightening us more about technique rather than mechanics.Maybe even something more subjective, like how do we prepare our mindset to view things fresh so we can fix them? How do we make a chapter become impressive reading rather than simply something correct by your rules? In this respect, the teacher-narrators of this book are no match for the guys who both teach and impart wisdom, like Jerome Stern or Sol Stein.
It does have some useful information. The chapter on adding “Sophistication” offers valuable ways to check your prose for amateur mistakes. This section is presented cleanly without as many rambling paragraphs as we suffer in the rest of the chapters, where “do’s and don’ts” are not so easily gleaned. But what’s perfect? Nothing. So maybe their general layout needed the edits of another set of eyes. Self-editing can be blind, after all.
Overall, it misses the mark. It lacks thrust. It tries to regulate the very nature of free exposition. It begs for an intimate connection. It does not meet the writer as a friend but as a subscriber. It has sort of a chiding schoolmarm tone, like “Why would you want [to do that]?” Oh, we’re just dumb students, that’s why. To make us feel even more like geniuses they include writing exercises – with answers! They’re not exercises, as in normal writing books, they’re little exam questions with no set answers. Well, okay. Maybe this was a workshop course they turned into a book. I suspect its content and delivery has roots in the pedantesque Writers Digest Factory of Experts.
Some of the bold statements the authors make that are misleading or incorrect or queasy:
NOTE: This post needs to be self-edited. :>0
If polar opposites co-exist and are part of the order of things, then there is no surprise to find the extremes of clarity vs. ambiguity in a person’s writing.
A story can have an ambiguous ending, one that effectively leaves the reader uncertain of a dramatic outcome. But that’s not what I mean.
I mean in the sense of language and composition. Strings of words, whether prose or poetry, can make perfect sense and at the same time evoke ambiguity. On the other hand, word strings written either intentionally vague or accidentally vague as a result of poor word choice or sloppy syntax, evoke confusion. Or they represent a surrender to clarity in the name of artful understatement, modern communicative hipness, laziness, or indifference.
I include myself in the list of occasional perpetrators. Sometimes I am not sure if my background as a technical writer – one who carried the war banner of “Be Clear and Concise” – is (speaking of extremes) a blessing or a curse.
Unlike the hackneyed writing sometimes seen in quick-study brochures, it’s discerning, succinct, and a model of organized writing.
Old tech writers (I’m one) can appreciate it. The text isn’t clogged with dense scholastic theory. It’s open-aired and practical. When the reader spots something in the novel itself, the notes are confirming.
At 115 pages and 8 bucks from a second-hand book dealer, mine is the 1967 original assembled by two professors, Doctors Carey & Roberts. Those guys must have spent many a long day and night in offices and taverns figuring out how they would distill the huge book into pony notes. Marianne Sturman later added short essay-like pieces on theme, structure, characters, etc.
The pieces instruct, in the spirit of the book itself:
“An outstanding feature of Tolstoy’s writing is that his characters are always “becoming” and not just “being.” Even in static chapters where there is little external action, the characters are changing … Tolstoy can make unusual dramatic material out of essentially undramatic stuff.”
* Follow-up post several days later: After reading sections of the Cliff’s, I picked up where I left off. It started with a chapter about a hounds chase at the Roskov estate. Nikolai is in his element and has his veteran dog ready to show how good they are. He seeks the target away from the pack. Meanwhile hundreds of other dogs and multiple horseback riders go after the wolves…not foxes, not hares — not a British chase, a Russian one. Rostov has his chance and seems to have triumphed but the wolf eludes him and his hound. The property’s wrangler, the giant Danilo, wraps up the wolf instead.
So the editor and publisher chose an unfortunate title: “How to Write Killer Fiction.” There are sections in this book that are much more sophisticated than that. And in fact, they contain material that is subtle and artful and difficult to find anywhere else. Not without a lot of wading anyway. Carolyn Wheat presents things to us in a straightforward way.
It’s not entirely a book about how to write murder mysteries and suspense novels. In fact, I skipped over much of the first part about mysteries and was no worse for it. It’s really a book about how to create suspense and build scenes and story patterns in any genre. To help us out, she first provides a succinct list of novel categories and types, de-mystifying the book market genres and showing us which are the most popular at the airport bookstand.It is up to us to apply her information to the type of book we are writing.
Wheat’s discussion on how to use the outcome pivot devices of “yes, but…” and “no, and furthermore…” are worth the price of admission. There is lots of advice about action arcs and reversals and tricks of the trade. Examples are used that require some inference. I am not sure if a beginning writer can catch all the subtleties and complexities. The book has a good share of writing nuggets, some so profoundly basic and true that we can tend to skip by them. On the first go-through anyway. This is a book worth reading more than twice and can kill your highlighter. I keep my copy with the other handy writing reference favorites (to be reviewed as well in upcoming posts).
Wheat doesn’t overload us with inspirational and cutesy writing fluff, like so many of the other writing books out there. Some of the material, like the last section of general writing advice, is ordinary, but her advice on creating suspenseful scenes, employing outcome tricks, and identifying genres is about as rare and useful as you can ever find. But we have to think and apply. It’s not a hand-holding type of writing guide.
It’s a collection of insights and habits as described by a mixed group of successfully published fiction writers.
It’s okay, but I’ll probably put it in the stacks for donation.
It reads like everyone wrote their answers to the topic-driven Q&A at home and sent in their answers on a telecommute basis. There’s no evident interaction or the feeling of listening to a panel at a seminar. The moderator becomes an editor and is sometimes inconsistent, giving us not enough in-depth discussion on some topics and way too much chat on others. In some cases, when things are just warming up and getting interesting, he pulls the plug. Maybe the mailed-in supply of material ended too soon.
That aside, there are lots of interesting tidbits for writers to consider and measure their process against. The topics are given in a TOC, which is pretty generalized. So in order to relocate something for reference, it’s probably necessary to have read all of Joshua Foer’s memory book (see May 12). Thats okay. The book is okay even if you open a page and go fishing.
The title refers to a Borges story. It sounds like a Sunday-school play. I get the connotation of it being “inspirational,” or maybe that was an accident, and no one could come up with a better title. The cover’s Halloween colors dilute the air of holiness.
I didn’t know who many of these authors are, and tended to skip and carefully read responses from the bigger names: Chabon, Egan, Goldman, those. I hope all the writers got paid well to talk shop and put their necks out there in print. Their secrets about the supposed miracle aren’t secrets anymore.