Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Everything I Know About Writing, #4: Finish what you start.

If I could go back in time and give my younger self one piece of writerly advice, it would be this: finish the stories you start.

Starting a project is easy because, if you're anything like me, the first phase of writing is really fun. You're excited about the concept, and the words come easily.

But there comes a time in the writing process when the project loses its shine. You don't know what happens next. You're out of ideas. The well is dry, and the writing is hard.

Maybe this is the point where, instead of proceeding with the narrative, you start endlessly fiddling with what you've already written.

In the meantime, perhaps you've had a different idea, a new idea, which has all the glitter your first project had before things started getting difficult. It's quite easy to jump ship from the first project, which has turned dry and boring, to the second one, which has the electrifying aura of novelty.

But you know what happens next. The second project gets hard, too. You hit the exact same snag. And you face the same temptation to give up and move on to the next bright shiny idea. Soon you're trapped in a cycle:

Here's the thing: you don't learn how stories are written except by writing them. You haven't really written a story until you've finished it. And you can't finish a story unless you're willing to muscle through when the going gets tough and unpleasant.
You will learn so much more from finishing one story, however bad, than you will from a thousand false starts.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Everything I Know About Writing, #3: Build a skyscraper of heartrending decisions.

I was writing the first draft of my first book, and I had a problem. It felt like my character was achieving her goals too easily. So I threw a bunch of roadblocks in her way to prolong her quest.

This is how I wound up with a 144,000-word manuscript in a genre where the preferred range is half that size.

I miscalculated. I confused making the task harder with making the task longer. My impulse to throw obstacles at my protag was a good one, but I shouldn't have increased the space between the character and her goal. Rather, I needed to up the intensity within that space.

She didn't need a broader sequence of obstacles. She needed harder obstacles occurring concurrently: obstacles that would cost her more, obstacles on top of obstacles.

Pile up your complications. Make them really hurt. Arrange them like a skyscraper of heartrending decisions--not like an Oregon Trail of mere chores.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Craft Talk with Jennifer Egan: Character

I love this craft talk by Jennifer Egan. I recommend watching these three short videos if you have any interest at all in the following:
  • creating full, complex characters
  • conveying a great deal of information in a small space
  • making every word in your manuscript count
  • using dialogue to characterize
  • avoiding clunky exposition
  • writing characters we find compelling even if we don't like them

Part 1

  • 0:00-2:47 How the elements of craft operate simultaneously and inseparably from each other
    • "One thing that I'm always thinking about [...] is how to get language to do the greatest number of possible things at one time."
    • "How can we suggest a whole human being, all the textures of an individual life and history, in as economical a way as possible?"
  • 2:48-5:40: The mistaken notion of character consistency
    • "That is the problem, in my opinion, with so-called consistent characters: they feel familiar, not because we've met them before, but because they are types."
    • "Getting at the particular conflicts at work in an individual is the critical job of characterization."
    • "Time is always passing, in life and in a work of fiction, and therefore stasis is not really possible. Even someone who hasn't changed reads differently, both on the page and in the world (I think we all know some people like this) after time has passed."
    • "Successful fiction, to my mind, owns those changes and controls them rather than trying to establish and then sustain an artificial stasis."
  • 5:41-6:37: How Jane Austen defies everything that's been said so far
    • "How she pulled that off, I still don't know. To me, one of the great literary mysteries is how her novels can be so good. They shouldn't work, and yet they work better than almost anything else, which is why another thing I strongly believe is that there really are no rules at all in fiction writing, despite what people standing at podiums might tell you."
  • 6:38-10:22: Close reading of a character description in Lorrie Moore's "Dance in America"
    • "What we have here is a cascade of surprises: each observation sets up an expectation that the next observation obliterates."
    • "So again and again, an observation is undercut, and yet oddly, the overall portrayal is amplified with every single contradiction. Each time you could say, 'That's not consistent,' and you would be right, but the inconsistency is exactly what makes the portrait exciting and alive, because this is actually how people are."
  • 10:23-13:38: Two-way description--Close reading of character description of Bertha Dorset from The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
    • "Good description is good because it reveals as much about the observer as it does abut the person or thing being observed. The ideal is what I would often find myself calling with my students last semester at NYU 'two-way description,' meaning that something or someone is being described, and the quality and choices of language reveal to the reader the character of the observer as well, so we're basically learning two things at once."

Part 2 

  • 0:00-1:21 Continuing with the Bertha Dorset description
    • "The elements of the description are not just fun and colorful and revealing of the object and the observer, but they're also completely significant. There's nothing extraneous here. Everything that is laid out gets used later."
  • 1:22-8:01: Jack Stepney and Gwen Van Osburgh
    • "It would have been so easy to leave these characters in a state of stasis or to let their stories be a playing out of their characters [...] but instead Wharton tells us a mini-story of their courtship and marriage, in which in some sense their roles are reversed, and she does this with pretty much every peripheral character in the novel, and when you add all of that up, the overall power of the work is exponentially increased."
  • 8:02-14:13: History, compression, and habits of mind--close reading of opening paragraph from Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
    • "Every word you choose in describing someone tells us a great deal about their past and present states, ideally more than one thing at a time. This is how we achieve the compression that I was talking about earlier, because so much of what the reader needs to know about a character can be said indirectly through suggestion and inference."
    • "After contradiction, which I would say is, for me, the most important aspect of characterization, habits of mind is the next most important one, and by that I mean what are the mental tricks a particular person uses to organize the world and make it familiar to him or herself?"

Part 3

  • 0:00-5:27: Voice, dialogue--close reading of Underworld by Don DeLillo
    • "Voice is the equivalent of a cooking stock. Without a good stock, the best ingredients in the world are not going to add up to anything [...] but with a really good stock, you could throw in almost anything. You could put a boot in there, and it will be delicious."
    • "Good dialogue relies on exactly the same kind of compression and history, word choices that tell us not only what someone is saying, obviously, but much more importantly, who they are, where they come from, and what they want."
  • 5:28-15:28: Likeability vs. humanity--close reading of A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone
    • "I don't think that characters need to be likeable (some of my readers disagree) and I'm actually wary of the term because it sounds to me like a code for blandness and simplicity. However, I do believe very strongly in attending to the humanity of anyone you're writing about and avoiding contempt or ridicule. I don't have to want to be friends with the people I read about, but I do crave a sense of what it feels like to be them, their history, their habits of mind, and some sense of what's driving them and why."

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Everything I Know About Writing, #2: Don't wait until morning to write down your midnight ideas.

Stephen King and I have a bit of a disagreement.

A while back, I watched this video of King giving a talk at UMass Lowell. At the 10:25 mark, King says, "People will say, do you keep a notebook? And the answer is, I think a writer's notebook is the best way in the world to immortalize bad ideas. My idea about a good idea is one that sticks around and sticks around and sticks around."

This was very reassuring for me. You mean when a random piece of vivid imagery, character, or prose pops into my head without warning in the middle of the night, I don't have to turn on the lights and jump out of bed and leap over hurdles and grab a pen and jot down the idea before it dissolves into the ether? Awesome!

I proceeded on the assumption that King was right for a good while after that...until one day I stumbled across an old sheet of scratch paper. I had written a scene on the back of the paper, dropped the sheet into a box, and completely forgotten about it.

Guys: it was great.

Hey. Stephen King is doing just fine. I'm not saying he needs to change his habits. But me? I keep a notebook and a pen on my nightstand. Index cards in my pockets, Paper Mates in my purse. And when an idea occurs to me in the middle of the night, I don't kid myself that I'll still remember what it was in the morning--or that, if I don't, the idea wasn't worth remembering anyway.

You never know.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Everything I Know about Writing, #1: The best way to have good ideas is to have lots of ideas.

Twyla Tharp does this exercise when she lectures on creativity. She walks onstage with a random object--say, a stool.

Then she tells the audience to come up with sixty uses for that stool in under two minutes. I'll let her describe what happens next:

To meet the quota, people begin by listing the most obvious uses for a stool, such as sitting on it, standing on it, or burning it as fuel. After that come the more imaginative uses--a doorstop, an anchor, a weapon, a projectile in a riot, as raw material for sculpture, as a surface to drum on. Then the final ideas come straggling in--as a surface for gymnastics, as a tool for taming lions, as a dancing partner. The closer they get to the sixtieth idea, the more imaginative they become--because they have been forced to stretch their thinking. (from Tharp's brilliant book The Creative Habit)

In The Magic Words, Cheryl Klein recommends a similar method. Klein confines her quota to a modest twenty items, but the object of the exercise is the same: to push past easy answers and arrive at something fresh. Protag confronting a thorny problem? List twenty ways she might solve it. Secondary character not fully fleshed out? List twenty facts about his background, desires, and opinions. Not sure what happens next? List twenty possible events and form your plot from the best five.

Don't get me wrong; the first idea that pops into your head might be brilliant. But it might just as easily be stale and generic. To find surprises, you have to force yourself to move beyond your initial thought. You have to stretch.

Monday, February 26, 2018

"Tamitha and the Dragon" is in Cricket Magazine!

The January 2018 issue of Cricket magazine is out now and contains my short story "Tamitha and the Dragon."

This is my second lead story for Cricket.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Gesture of the Day: Alias Grace

I want to talk about Dr. Jordan's apple.

In Chapter 5 of Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, the imprisoned murderess Grace Marks receives a visitor. It is Simon Jordan, a young psychologist--keep in mind that this is 1859--bearing a gift: an apple. Grace has consumed nothing but bread and water for several days now:

I am so thirsty the apple looks to me like a big round drop of water, cool and red. I could drink it down in one gulp. I hesitate; but then I think, There's nothing bad in an apple, and so I take it. [...] I lift it up and smell it. It has such an odour of outdoors on it I want to cry.

Aren't you going to eat it, he says.

No, not yet, I say.

Why not, he says.

[...] The truth is I don't want him watching me while I eat. I don't want him to see my hunger. If you have a need and they find it out, they will use it against you.

Now there's a lot going on in this chapter, and there's a lot going on with this apple. Much could be said of both. But I want to say just one thing. Dr. Jordan wants Grace to talk to him, to become his patient, the subject of his research. Grace distrusts him. She's been down this road before, and she resists his suggestion.

Will they take me back to the Asylum?I say. Or will they put me in solitary confinement, with nothing to eat but bread?

He says, I give you my word that as long as you continue to talk with me, and do not lose control of yourself and become violent, you shall remain as you were. I have the Governor's promise.

I look at him. I look away. I look at him again. I hold the apple in my two hands. He waits.

And then, in the very last line, this happens:

Finally I lift the apple up and press it to my forehead.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you write a gesture. Wouldn't it have been easy enough to have Grace bite the apple, thereby signaling her acceptance of Jordan's terms? And isn't this, the raising of the apple to her forehead, so much better? Less expected, more ambiguous, more emotionally resonant. Better.

These are the moments that make good fiction.