Register Now for One Good Scene

Hey writers, welcome. This post’s for you.

THE WORKSHOP: I’m pleased to announced that the next session of my fiction-writing course, One Good Scene, is now open for registration for January 2019 session. It is an intensive 7-week online workshop that includes weekly lectures, writing assignments, peer critiques given and received, and detailed feedback from me on every assignment.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:  One Good Scene is based on two premises.

First: that a story or novel is composed of a series of scenes strung together with narrative, the way beads are strung on a chain.

Second:  that all the skills needed to write a story or novel come into play in the composition of a single scene.

A writer who can produce one shapely, tense, fully-realized scene after another can write a publishable novel. By focusing on the very manageable goal of crafting one good scene, writers hone the very skills needed to write a novel. For more details about the course, see the description on my website. Here’s some feedback from writers who’ve taken the course, including  some who’ve gone on to publish.

WHO IT’S FOR:  This workshop is open to fiction writers of all levels of experience, from beginners who want to build on a solid foundation to published writers intent on honing their craft. Because its focus is on the crafting of an individual scene, the workshop is useful for fiction writers of any genre, as well as memoir writers. As in all the “Next Level” workshops, my goal is to help writers reach the next level, whatever that is for each individual. I do this, in part, by keeping the classes very small.

ABOUT ME: I don’t just talk the talk; I’ve walked the walk, as a writer who also worked extensively in the publishing industry. My 8 novels were published in the U.S.  by Viking, Doubleday, Morrow, Simon & Schuster, as well as publishers in England, Japan, France, Italy, Israel, Holland and other countries. I coauthored two nonfiction books that were published by Crown Books and Harcourt Brace. Before I gave it up to focus on writing, I had a successful 20-year career in publishing, first as an editor, then as head of my own literary agency.

I began teaching fiction writing at SUNY Farmingdale and Hofstra University. After initiating Hofstra’s online program with a course on self-editing, I founded my own online school, Nextlevelworkshop.com, where I work with writers come from all over the world.

My career has allowed me to see publishing from just about every angle. Now I bring all that practical expertise into the classroom, along with a strong focus on craft.

TUITION AND REGISTRATION: If you have questions or would like to enroll in the course, please email me at next.level.workshop@gmail.com. If you are interested but not quite sure, I invite you to take advantage of my special get-acquainted offer while it’s available. You can get feedback on your work and at the same gauge the likelihood that you will profit from this workshop. Tuition is $395, with a discount for returning students. Please note the money-back guarantee: if you start the course and decide that it’s not right for you, you can withdraw, and I will refund your tuition.

Please don’t send money before you hear back from me. Spots are limited, and some of those are already taken by people on a waiting list. I keep these classes very small to allow for close attention to each participant.

 

 

“ONE GOOD SCENE” WORKSHOP SCHEDULED

Hey writers, welcome. This post’s for you.

THE WORKSHOP: I’m pleased to announced that the next session of my fiction-writing course,  One Good Scene, will soon open for registration for a fall 2018 session. It is an intensive 7-week online workshop that includes weekly lectures, writing assignments, peer critiques given and received, and detailed feedback from me on every assignment.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:  One Good Scene is based on two premises.

First: that a story or novel is composed of a series of scenes strung together with narrative, the way beads are strung on a chain.

Second:  that all the skills needed to write a story or novel come into play in the composition of a single scene.

A writer who can produce one shapely, tense, fully-realized scene after another can write a publishable novel. By focusing on the very manageable goal of crafting one good scene, writers hone the very skills needed to write a novel. For more details about the course, see the description on my website. Here’s some feedback from writers who’ve taken the course, including  some who’ve gone on to publish.

WHO IT’S FOR:  This workshop is open to fiction writers of all levels of experience, from beginners who want to build on a solid foundation to published writers intent on honing their craft. Because its focus is on the crafting of an individual scene, the workshop is useful for fiction writers of any genre, as well as memoir writers. As in all the “Next Level” workshops, my goal is to help writers reach the next level, whatever that is for each individual. I do this, in part, by keeping the classes very small.

ABOUT ME: I’m a writer who has worked extensively in the publishing industry. My 8 novels were published in the U.S.  by Viking, Doubleday, Morrow, Simon & Schuster, as well as publishers in England, Japan, France, Italy, Israel, Holland and other countries. I coauthored two nonfiction books that were published by Crown Books and Harcourt Brace.

Like most writers, I had a day job, but that “day job” was a 20-year career in publishing. I was an editor for Fawcett Books and a literary agent for many years. After I sold the agency to focus on my own writing, I began teaching fiction writing, first at SUNY and Hofstra University, then through my online school, Nextlevelworkshop.com, where I work with writers come from all over the world.

My career has allowed me to see publishing from just about every angle. Now I bring all that practical expertise into the classroom, along with a strong focus on craft.

TUITION AND REGISTRATION: If you have questions or would like to enroll in the course, please email me at next.level.workshop@gmail.com. If you are interested but not quite sure, I invite you to take advantage of my special get-acquainted offer while it’s available. You can get feedback on your work and at the same gauge the likelihood that you will profit from this workshop. Tuition is $395, with a discount for returning students. Please note the money-back guarantee: if you start the course and decide that it’s not right for you, you can withdraw, and I will refund your tuition.

Please don’t send money before you hear back from me. Spots are limited, and I keep these classes very small to allow for close attention to each participant.

“Revising Fiction” Workshop Scheduled!

Attention fiction writers: My annual “Revising Fiction” has been scheduled to begin on March 16, 2017, and is now open for registration.

Plato

For those who are not familiar with it, this intensive online workshop is for writers with a completed draft of a novel or a body of short stories to work on bringing their fiction to the next level. Whether it’s a first draft or a 10th, participants’ books will undergo a process that will result in much stronger manuscripts, along with tools they can apply to everything they write in the future. This is the most advanced workshop I offer; it’s geared not only to talented aspiring writers but also to published writers who know how important it is to keep growing their craft. Please note that the workshop requires a significant investment of time, typically 10 to 16 hours a week over 14 weeks—but that includes time spent editing your own work.

Getting published is hard; staying published may be even harder. Writing for one of the big five houses is to writers what playing professionally is to athletes: in addition to talent, you have to be at the top of your game to have a chance. Athletes train for years to reach that level. Some writers expect to achieve it with the first story they write. Very few do. Most published writers have had to go back of the same book time and time again, or write another with the lessons learned from writing the first, before they break into print. Editing is an essential part of the writing process, and the one most often neglected. First drafts are where writers capture the story, pinning it to paper so it can’t escape. Subsequent drafts are where they turn that raw material into art.

When I was an agent, the hardest submissions to reject with were the ones that came within a draft or two of being publishable. Often these were books by talented writers whose execution doesn’t quite measure up to their talent. They weren’t salable as written, and like most agents, I didn’t have time to teach aspiring writers how to finish their work.

Now more than ever, writers are expected to learn the craft on their own dime.

That craft includes the essential ability to self-edit, the final step in the actual writing of the book, before it is taken up by an agent or publisher. As William Zinsser said, “Rewriting is where the game is won or lost; rewriting is the essence of writing.” But of course that’s easier said than done. Most writers want to revise their work, to bring it closer to the ideal novel they envisioned when they set out on this journey. They know that, no matter how impeccable we are, our first drafts are just a rough approximation of what our stories are meant to be. Editing is not just a matter of chipping away excess bits or changing a word here and there. It also entails building up, shifting emphasis, adding or omitting characters and subplots, clarifying and enhancing theme.

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Good writers are good editors.

Everyone knows that, and everyone aspires; but there are obstacles to effective self-editing. One is the difficulty of getting feedback of a quality high enough to raise our level of play. Another is the fact that by the time we finish a complete draft of the work, we’ve read it too often to address it with the objectivity required for editing. The “Revising Fiction” workshop was created to address both those problems, and to provide fiction writers with a methodical way of going about revision.

I’m proud that quite a few writers who’ve taken this workshop have gone on to find agents and publishers, but there’s no guarantee of that outcome. All I promise is that participants will come out of the course with better drafts and more tools in their writers’ toolbox. I back that up with a money-back guarantee: anyone who takes this course and decides within a few weeks that it’s not appropriate can withdraw and get their tuition back. I teach the course myself, read and critique every word by every participant, oversee peer critiques, guide discussions, provide lectures and supplementary material.

WHO I AM: I’ve worked in publishing and as a writer for over 40 years. I started out working for Fawcett Books, then a top paperback house. After that I became a literary agent, founding and running my own agency for 14 years. I also know the publishing world from the perspective of a writer, having had eight novels and several works of nonfiction published by major houses, including Viking/Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Doubleday and Morrow. I edit fiction and teach fiction writing, formerly at Hofstra University and SUNY, currently in my own online Next Level workshops.

That’s the short version. Here’s a longer one.

HOW TO REACH ME: If you’d like to apply for the Revising Fiction workshop or have any questions about it, email me at next.level.workshop@gmail.com.

WHAT YOU NEED:

  1. A completed draft.
  2. Time. Most writers have day jobs, and I don’t expect you to quit yours or neglect your family, at least not totally. But you will need to carve out a minimum of 10-12 hours a week to devote to the workshop and your own editing.
  3. Dough. Tuition is $795, much less than you’d pay for an equivalent semester-long university course, but still a chunk of money. Don’t send any now, though! I’ll ask accepted students for a deposit after putting together my roster. There is a 10% discount for returning students.
  4. A writing sample, specifically the first five or six pages of your novel.
  5. An open mind.

For more specifics on the course, see my website; for comments from former participants, see the testimonials page…and check out the  publishing credits beside their names.

Don’t wait too long if you’re interested. I keep these workshops very small because I spend so much time working with each writer; and I try to put together groups that are compatible but varied. It’s not always possible for me to offer every applicant a spot, but one way or another, you’ll definitely hear back from me. I generally offer only one of these workshops each year. If the timing isn’t right for you, but you know a writer for whom it might be perfect, please pass the word along.

And now, may the wild rumpus begin!

BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS

 

There’s a scene in one of the Harry Potter books in which Ginny Weasley looks up from her seat in the Great Hall and remarks, “There’s Harry. He’s covered in blood. Why is he always covered in blood?”

Harry PotterShe’s exaggerating a bit, but just a bit. When he’s not actually bleeding, Harry is suffering a searing pain in his scar, a broken arm or a smashed nose, not to mention assorted psychological tortures. There’s a reason for his torment. There’s also a reason that magic potions taste like pus and earwax instead of lemonade, and that Rowling’s other series’ hero, Cormoran Strike, has an ill-fitting prosthetic leg. It’s the same reason, and it’s one all writers need to understand.

I’ll tell you what that is in just a moment. First I want to cite His Holiness, Mark Twain. “The writer’s job,” he famously said, “is to chase characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.”  By dropping them into situations of conflict, we strip away the social masks and force their true selves, the way a gardener forces a bulb. Characters cannot rise to a challenge that never comes. Until they are tested, they can neither succeed nor fail; they cannot change, and change is essential in fiction.

Life is a struggle; all grownups know that. Fiction must be as well, or readers will not care or engage. We need protagonists who are passionately invested in some enterprise, something they need to achieve or avert despite all obstacles. The novel is a chronicle of that battle.

Dorothy2As readers we know this. We expect conflict and trouble in fiction; we demand it. And it needs to come, not all at once, but throughout the story. Imagine this alternative version of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy lands safely in Oz. Instead of taking the ruby shoes from the witch she killed, she receives them as a gift. The Munchkins tell her that in order to get home, she needs to see the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy follows the yellow brick road and meets many helpful people on her journey. They point out the way and give her whatever she needs. After a pleasant walk, Dorothy arrives in Oz and is taken at once to see the wizard. He listens to her story and agrees to send her back to Kansas. Following his instructions, Dorothy clicks her shoes together and is instantly transported home.

The end.

Do you love it? Of course not. You may even be asleep by now. Without its dangers and challenges, Dorothy’s journey would have been long forgotten. She might as well have stayed home.

So here is the reason Harry’s always covered in blood, and I’ll thank you to remember where you heard it: In fiction, every gain needs to come at a cost.

Dickens knew that. Tolkien knew it, too; and Rowling’s got it down in spades. By the time Harry Potter has to battle his nemesis, he’s acquired great abilities and knowledge, every bit of which cost him dearly, with the costs escalating throughout the series. Harry can read the enemy’s mind—but to do so he must bare his own mind to assault. When he needs essential information, it’s obtainable—but it costs the life of a key ally. He’s given the means to defeat his enemy—but  only if he’s willing to die in the process.

Nothing comes for free (except this blog).

mountainSo here’s the takeaway for writers. I teach writing, and before that I was a literary agent for 14 years, so I’ve read a ton of beginner fiction. One of the most common weaknesses lies in the writers’ tendency to smooth the way for their protagonists. If a detective needs information, someone’s sure to volunteer it. If our hero is stranded on a mountaintop, help will arrive in a four-wheel drive. If his house were on fire, the heavens would open in a dowsing rain. These authors are benevolent gods.

But that is not what fiction needs. To be kind to their readers, writers must often be hard on their characters. I’m not suggesting that there’s no place in fiction for good luck or gratuitous kindness: a gift of information, aid, comfort. But how much more powerful are those moments if everything else is hard-won? Don’t present your characters with gifts on a platter. Make them work for everything they get, make them pay a price; and readers will love them for it.

 

 

 This is one in a series of posts on the craft of fiction writing. Here are some others: The Biology of Fiction; Game of Words; Settings; and What Writers Can Learn From Game of Thrones.  You can subscribe to this blog via links to right and above. For more information about my online writing workshops, visit my website. And finally: if you or anyone on your Christmas list has a taste for literary mayhem, may I recommend A DANGEROUS FICTION?

 

Revising Fiction

Ladies and Gentlemen, an announcement: The next online “Revising Fiction” workshop has been scheduled to begin on August 13 and is now open for registration. This workshop is for writers with a complete draft of a novel or a body of short stories, who want to work on bringing their fiction to the next level.

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I’ll tell you more about the workshop in a minute, but first, a digression. At a party not long ago, I overheard two aspiring writers talking about difficulty of selling their work. “It’s all about who you know,” one said. “You can’t even get an agent unless you have got an in.”

“Totally,” replied the other. “They don’t even read the stuff that comes in over the transom. It’s a fixed game.”

I envisioned that scene in a Harry Potter movie in which Harry and Ron are whispering during Professor Snape’s class: not a smart move, when that character is portrayed by the inimitable Alan Rickman. He positions himself behind them, rolls up his sleeves, and in one swift motion bangs their heads together.

I myself refrained, with some difficulty. I’ve heard this claim so often, and it is so untrue and counterproductive. New writers get published all the time. Over the years, I’ve seen many of my writing students sell books that they labored over, sometimes for years; none of them had contacts in the industry. I’ve been in the writing/publishing business for over 40 years now, including 12 years as a literary agent. A lot has changed, but one thing hasn’t. While many factors are involved in an agent or publisher’s decision to take a chance on a writer, great writing trumps them all.

slam dunkIt’s hard; why wouldn’t it be? Getting published by one of the big five houses is to writers what playing professionally is to athletes. In addition to talent, you have to be at the top of your game to have a chance. Athletes train for years to reach that level. Some writers expect to achieve it with the first story they write. A very few actually do; they have that level of talent and ability. But most published writers have had to go back of the same book time and time again, or write another with the lessons learned from writing the first, before they break into publication.

Consider another comparison. Getting published commercially is to writers what a gallery show is to painters. Aspiring painters study their art. Writers? Not so much.

When I was an agent, the hardest submissions to deal with were the ones that came within a draft or two of being publishable: the almost-but-not-quite books. Editors don’t want to invest the time, or don’t have it to invest. Agents who give notes and ask for revisions have filled in the gap to some extent, but writers are still expected to learn the craft on their own dime. Editing is an essential part of the writing process, and the one most often neglected. First drafts are where writers capture the story, pin it to paper so it can’t escape. Subsequent drafts are where they turn that raw material into art.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’d like to believe that all writers understand the importance of editing. As William Zinsser said, “Rewriting is where the game is won or lost; rewriting is the essence of writing.” But it’s easier said than done.  Part of the difficulty for writers lies in getting the necessary feedback in order to raise their level of play. Another part lies in the fact that writers are often too close to their work to see it objectively.

That’s why “Revising Fiction” was the first workshop I created, with the intention of addressing both those problems. To succeed in this market—no, more than that, to succeed in their art—writers need to edit their work. This does not take the place of having one’s work edited by a professional editor, whether supplied by a publisher who buys the book or hired by a writer prior to self-publishing. That’s essential, because we only see what we see; it takes an outsider to point out what we don’t see. But revision, or self-editing, comes before that; it’s the final step in the actual writing of the book.

You can read more about “Revising Fiction” here, along with some testimonials from writers who’ve taken the workshop. Participants emerge with a much improved draft, along with tools they can apply to everything they write in the future. This is the most advanced workshop I offer, and it’s open to published as well as aspiring writers. Please note that the workshop requires a significant investment of time, typically 12 to 18 hours a week over 14 weeks—but that includes time spent editing your own work. If this sounds useful, and you have a finished draft, I’d be happy to hear from you. Applicants should include the first 5 pages of their mss. The workshop is limited to eight writers, because I spend a ton of time working with each; and I try to put together groups that are compatible but varied. It’s not always possible for me to offer every applicant a spot; but one way or another, you’ll definitely hear back from me.

ON WRITING AND GARDENING

 

WinterIt’s been a cold, snowy winter in New York, good writing weather, but I’m ready for spring. Right now the view from my office window is nearly black and white: snow, bare branches against white sky, and the crenellated tips of fences. Soon the snow will melt, though, and in a month or so I’ll see the first pop of color in my rock garden, the irises and crocuses.

There’s a backstory to this garden. About 12 years ago, I got sick and had to undergo an unpleasant course of treatment. My husband and sons sought a way to show their support in a material way. What they came up with was a large rock garden, which they installed just outside my home office window, so I could enjoy it not only when I went outside but every time I sat down to work.

I’d never been a gardener. Gardening entails dirt, sweat, bugs and blisters, none of which I’m fond of. Often there are worms. Faith is required, gratification always delayed. And did I mention worms?

Nevertheless, I loved my rock garden, and after I recovered, I began to work on it. (I named it, too: the Barbara Rogan Memorial Garden, which no one but me thought was funny.) Little by little, I discovered that gardening metaphors were creeping into the way I thought and talked about fiction writing, and with good reason: they are similar endeavors in so many ways.

THE BIG PICTURE: In the beginning, I would go to my local nursery, buy whatever perennials caught my eye, and plant them anywhere I had room. The result was a disappointing hodgepodge. The flowers themselves were pretty, but the composition had no rhyme or reason. In a good garden, as in a good novel, all the parts exist to serve the whole. If they don’t, then no matter how pretty they are, they have to go.10486199_10152369477687865_5901926996832331028_n

WEEDING: However natural they may look, gardens are man-made compositions in which every element exists for a reason. The most beautiful specimen plant will go unseen if it’s surrounded by weeds.

Occasionally, in my students’ work, I come across a particularly well-crafted phrase or image or encapsulated thought, one that conveys with beautiful economy everything the scene is trying to achieve. These are the lines that “say it all,” if they’re allowed to do so without being smothered by surrounding verbiage. Editing showcases what is beautiful in our work by removing those elements that don’t contribute.

LABOR: Gardens repay sweat equity. So does writing; and writing novels in particular is more labor-intensive than most people would imagine. Before a book makes it to market, the writer may have produced a dozen drafts, each one better than the last.

Writing “effortless prose” takes huge effort. In fact, most things that seem effortless aren’t.

PATIENCE: Gardens aren’t built in a single season. Perennials often need a year or two of settling in before they bloom profusely. Much of the work goes on underground, out of sight.

Ideas also take time to germinate, and writers’ skills grow over time. Barbara Kingsolver said it took her 30 years to feel ready to tackle her masterpiece, The Poisonwood Bible. Novels take a long time to research, develop, write and edit. Like gardens, they can’t be rushed.

10274166_10152154759247865_6382013076439694242_nTIME: A garden is not a static installation; it changes as the growing season progresses. Things that were hidden spring to life: a patch of grassy stems transforms overnight into a carpet of red lilies. My rock garden looks entirely different in April than it does in August. In novels, too, time is a necessary dimension. A poem may immortalize a moment; but fiction is a vehicle for change, and change takes place over time.

THE SENSES: It took me a ridiculously long time to understand that gardens are not all visual. We’ve always had Russian Sage in the rock garden, and early on I took to crushing a leaf or two between my fingers to release its scent. Then one year we planted some Asiatic lilies. The following summer I walked outside one evening and was struck by the most alluring, intoxicating scent I’d ever encountered. For weeks those lilies perfumed the whole yard.

Fiction, too, infiltrates through the senses. Words are not things in themselves but symbols of things. Much of fiction’s work lies in making the abstract seem real, through the use of vivid, specific, selective description. Until a setting feels absolutely real, nothing that happens there will matter.

FAITH: at some point in every novel, the writer hits a snag. It might be a character who refuses to come into focus or a plot complication that’s gumming up the works; whatever it is, it feels dire. One of the advantages of having written a bunch of novels is that when I inevitably hit those snags, I know a solution will emerge in the course of writing. I have faith in the process.

Gardening, too, requires faith. We dig a hole, plant a bulb or seed, give it some water and trust it will grow. When snow blankets the garden and eradicates all signs of life, we trust that life and color will return.

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And so they will. Spring is just around the corner.

 

But just in case you need a good mystery to while away the time until it arrives, I hope you’ll consider A DANGEROUS FICTION, now available in Penguin paperback.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM J. K. ROWLING

Good writers never stop learning their craft, and the best teachers are other writers. My most recent lesson came from J. K. Rowling, a.k.a. Robert Galbraith.

silkwormVery few books in a lifetime of reading have delighted me as much as the Harry Potter series, so naturally I was eager to read the adult novels that followed them. The Casual Vacancy was a disappointment, lacking even the ordinary magic of storytelling. But the two books that followed, The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, showed Rowling back on track. They are wonderfully absorbing novels, hard to put down once begun.

Of course, writers can’t simply enjoy stories without poking and prodding the mechanism, trying to see how the thing works. I recognized some of the standard ingredients of good fiction: tangible settings, the skillful use of suspense, colorful secondary characters, and two exceptionally likable main characters in private detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin. As I read The Silkworm, it struck me that Strike and Harry Potter actually have a lot in common. They are both orphans, in Strike’s case functionally rather than formally, since he has a living but estranged father. And  both have painful physical problems. For Harry it starts with the scar on his forehead that burns periodically but goes far beyond that.  Everything he does to achieve his goals comes at a cost that is very often dangerous and painful. There’s a line in one of the books in which Ginny, seeing Harry enter the Great Hall, says, “He’s covered in blood. Why is he always covered in blood?”

Cormoran, who lost part of a leg to a war injury, has an ill-fitting prosthesis that causes him great pain throughout much of both novels. At one point in The Silkworm, he is unable to fit the prosthetic onto his swollen stump. Does he seek out medical help, like any normal person would? Of course not. Lives are at stake, a fiendish murderer is on the loose, and an innocent woman stands charged. He continues the chase on one leg.

RowlingCormoran, like Harry Potter, sacrifices himself to save others. I would hardly be the first to observe that the Harry Potter books are imbued with Christian theology and symbolism, or that Harry himself plays the role of Jesus, sacrificing himself so that others may live (although the Harry Potter books have a happier ending.) But Cormoran’s disability is less germane to the novels’ plots, and thus in a way more interesting. Its main purposes, as far as I can tell, are to make the character nobler and more sympathetic, and to create additional obstacles in his path to success. Rowling succeeds in both respects.

When solving a crime is just a job and the process unfolds intellectually, readers can enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect without getting deeply involved with the characters. But when the detective has flesh in the game, it’s a whole different level of story. Because I felt Cormoran’s pain subliminally throughout the story, there was an under-layer of discomfort to the experience of reading that lent a sense of urgency and fed my impatience for a resolution. I wanted him off that leg!

Mark Twain once said that his way of telling a story is to chase his protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at him. The harder we make life for our protagonists, the greater the obstacles they have to overcome, the more readers will care. One of the problems I see in a lot of student fiction (and occasionally in my own) is that writers feel too much for their protagonists and thus take pity on them. But writing requires a certain level of ruthlessness. Sometimes, to be kind to our readers, we must be cruel to our characters.

 

Diana Gabaldon Interview, Part I

Diana Gabaldon is the author of the award-winning, #1 NYT-bestselling OUTLANDER novels, described by Salon magazine as “the smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting “Scrooge McDuck” comics.” The series is published in 26 countries and 23 languages, with more than nineteen million copies in print worldwide and a miniseries in the works.

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I’ve known Diana for fifteen years or so, ever since we met on the Compuserve Book and Author forum. For several years we both served as presenters at the Surrey International Writers Conference and had the opportunity to hang out in real life. Everyone who’s read her work knows Diana is a spellbinding storyteller. What you may not know, unless you’ve met her, is that she’s as delightful a person as she is a writer. She does a great deal for others that never gets talked about or reported, and I’m not going to out her here, except to say that she ministers to those who most need it and she goes out of her way to help fellow writers, as I know from personal experience.  (See Diana’s comment on my forthcoming thriller, A DANGEROUS FICTION.)

Back when that book was just beginning its journey into print, I asked some friends to brainstorm titles. Diana came up with  “In Cold Ink.” In the end it didn’t quite fit as the book’s title, but I loved it so much I adopted it as the name of my blog, making Diana its godmother.  Now she has graciously paid us a visit and bestowed an interview, which I’m delighted to share with you here in several parts. In this first segment, we talk about Diana’s origins as a writer, her taxonomy of character types, and her own writing process. Along the way she punctures a few misconceptions.

Q: Were you a great reader as a child? What were your favorite books?

A: Yes.  My mother taught me to read at the age of three; I can’t remember not being able to read.  I do remember turning up on the first day of kindergarten, flipping critically through DICK AND JANE and dropping it, remarking, “That’s a stupid book.  Is there anything else to  read?”   (I was not a tactful child.)child reading

I read—and still do read—just about anything.   I read my way through the entire children’s section of the Flagstaff Public Library by the third grade, at which point I went on to the adult section (my mother having assured the librarian—who was Very Dubious about this—that I could take out anything I wanted to).   Among the things I read repeatedly, though, were ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, the Oz books, all the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, the entire series of biographies of famous people for children, and any Walt Disney comic I could get my hands on.

Q: Do you recall a specific moment when you realized that you’d like to write stories yourself?

A:  Yeah.  I was about eight, and coming back in the car from a family outing to the cinder hills near Flagstaff (we often went out there on Sundays when the weather was nice).  It was summer and the daily thunderstorm was shaping up overhead.  I remember  looking up into the clouds and talking to God—I wasn’t praying, just talking to Him—and saying, “I want to write books.  I think I’m supposed to write books.”  Mind—at this point, the notion of WRITING A BOOK was the most far-fetched, impossible thing I could imagine.  I might as well have said, “I think I want to fly to Mars.”

I didn’t have the slightest idea how books were written, let alone how they got onto the library shelves (didn’t know people got paid for writing books, either; when I found that out, it seemed like an amazing bonus).

Anyway, God said (more or less), “Yes, that’s right.  You should.”

Q: First novels are often autobiographical in some fashion or another. You haven’t got a drop of Scottish blood in you, you were never a nurse and you haven’t (as far as I know) time-traveled. Is there anything in OUTLANDER that did draw upon your own life experience and/or passions?

Gabaldon-Outlander-220x322A: If you write an honest book, most of it is you, regardless of setting, time period, or the external aspects of your characters. And the idiotic assumption that one can only write about one’s own life experience—if widely adopted—would have prevented most of the world’s great books being written.  (Not saying you’re an idiot, mind you <g>.)  It’s just that that stupid, “Write what you know” axiom has been propagated so much that people don’t stop to question it, and thus don’t realize that it’s backward.  It’s not that you should limit yourself to using your own life as material; it’s that you shouldn’t write what you don’t know—but you can find out anything you need to know.

There’s also this little item called “imagination,” which I think is given remarkably short shrift these days.   As a novelist, I can be Anybody.  Anytime, Any place, in any condition of body or mind.   Why should I just be me?  How boring.

(Not even going to touch the equally prevalent attitude that a writer should for some reason be strongly drawn to write about his or her ethnic background—but only if s/he isn’t white.  People keep pestering me to “write about your heritage,” by which they mean the New Mexican/Hispanic side.  Why don’t they pester me to write about the English or German side, assuming I wanted to write about my heritage in the first place, which I don’t?)

But returning to what you actually asked <g>:  Sure.  Owing to a series of academic accidents, I taught classes in Human Anatomy and Physiology in several different institutions, including Temple University’s School of Nursing.   Now, this had nothing whatever to do with my own scientific interests, background, or research specialties—they just paid me for doing it.  But the material was undeniably interesting—and it gave me the broad but shallow grasp of clinical medicine that is the core of Claire’s work as a healer and physician.

Now, I was a field ecologist for some time.  Which means I naturally look at what’s going on around me when I’m outdoors.  I know what the basic features of a given ecosystem type are—which means that whether I’m looking at the Scottish Highlands or the North Carolina mountains, I know that there will birds species doing X, and plant species that fill Y niche, and so on.   Beyond that, it’s just a matter of looking up the specific plants and animals, and that’s a matter of very simple research.

I’m sixty-one.  I’ve been in love, been married, borne children, had people near me die.  Naturally bits and pieces of all these experiences filter through into the books I write.  Be strange if they didn’t, wouldn’t it?

Q: You have many readers who are passionate about your books and personally invested in the characters. Putting all modesty aside, why do you think readers connect so deeply with your characters?

A: I do write honest books, so far as it lies in my power to do so.  People recognize reality (in terms of character and situation and emotion) when they see it, and it’s natural for them to empathize with people they see as real.

(The Washington Post recently asked me for “a few sentences” describing what I did for Valentine’s Day, for a column in which such bits from a dozen (female) authors were quoted.  Most of the other participants went on about going out for a romantic dinner with their husband and toasting each other with pink champagne, or…well…take this one:

“I love seeing the glowing pyres of fat, deep red-red roses in full cry, displays of pink Champagne and boxes of chocolates that spring up all over London, and hope that a glorious bunch might find its way to me. Yet, if I was giving roses to a man on this particular day (and why not, for all sensual men love them), I’d buy flame orange, rich yellow or creamy, pink-tinged white; and pretend — because I’m old fashioned — that it was merely joie de vivre, or exuberance, or entirely accidental….”  

And then there was what I said (the absolute un—er—varnished <g> truth:

“We’re having the saltillo tile floors resealed. This means having to move all the furniture, send the dogs to my son’s house for a sleepover, and walk around in our socks for two days. Our bed is disassembled and hidden in the closet, so I’m sleeping in a daughter’s room, and my husband is nesting somewhere in the living room (where all the furniture is). On the other hand, romance is not dead; he gave me a bathrobe and a card with a singing bug, and I gave him a jar of white anchovy filets and a tube of wasabi paste.”

Now, clearly one would like to escape now and then and wallow in thoughts of accidental roses…but which author do you think you might feel more connected with, on the basis of these brief snips?)

Q: It’s hard for readers to imagine characters in their embryonic state, when we experience them as fully-developed, complicated human beings. But characters don’t spring to life that way. Can you talk a bit about how you go about growing characters from stick figures into people?

A: But I don’t do that.  I know there are a lot of popular assumptions about how writers work, and the notion that one decides that a specific character is needed, equips him or her with a name, and then sets to work collecting pictures of actors and drawing up index cards with the character’s taste in peanut-butter is certainly one of them.  It’s possible that some writers really do do that, and God help them, if so—whatever works, you know?

For me, characters are pretty organic.   I don’t plot a story and insert characters; the story exists because these particular people have needs and desires and motivations, and finding themselves in a particular situation, act upon them.

You hear about “plot-driven” stories vs. “character-driven” stories (and why always “versus,” I wonder?  There’s nothing antithetical between plot and character)—but in fact, the plot is simply what the characters do.  They may do what they do in part because of the situation and circumstances in which they find themselves—but they do what they do mostly because they are who they are.

For me, characters tend to fall into one of three main types: mushrooms, onions, and hard nuts.  (That’s not a description of their personalities, btw, but rather of the way in which I work with them, and them with me.)

Mushrooms are the delightful people who spring into life unexpectedly and walk right off with any scene they’re in.  Lord John Grey is a mushroom, as is Mr. mushroomWilloughby, the Chinese poet with a notable foot fetish, and Mrs. Figg, Lord John’s redoubtable housekeeper (“Mrs. Figg was smoothly spherical, gleamingly black, and inclined to glide silently up behind one like a menacing ball-bearing.”).  They talk to me freely, and I never have to stop and wonder what they’d do in any given situation—they just do it.

onionOnions are the ones whose innermost essence I apprehend immediately—but the longer I work with them, the more layers they develop, and thus the more well-rounded and pungent they become.  Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp Randall are both onions.

Hard nuts are pretty much what they sound like.  These are the people who  “come with” a story by default, rather than developing organically  by popping out of the mental compost.  Historical figures, for instance, who were necessarily there, and have to be animated in a satisfying way, or people who exist only because another character was pregnant, leaving me with an unknown child to deal with.  These, I just research (for the historical people) or live with (for the unknowns), and gradually, I begin to have a sense of them.  But as with everyone else, they truly “develop” only in the context of their own situation and circumstance.

End of Part 1.

Go to Part 2.

In part 2 of the interview, Diana goes on to talk about her relationship with her readers, some controversial choices, and the demands that literary success imposes on the writer’s personal life. Sign up for the blog’s email or RSS feed so you won’t miss it!

Thanks, Diana!

 

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.   Diana Gabaldon called A DANGEROUS FICTION “a terrific read–A thriller with a psychological heart of mystery, a double-ended love story, and a fascinating look at the world of high-stakes publishing,”  and NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

What Writers Can Learn From Game of Thrones

 

My name is Barbara, and I’m a Game of Thrones addict.

MartinI know I’m not alone. George R. R. Martin has millions in his thrall, captives of the TV series and/or the books on which it is based. For me, it started with the first season. I watched an episode or two, enough to realize that there was no way I was waiting years for the series to play out. So I started on the books; and several thousand pages later, I looked up wearily and realized that three weeks had passed.

After withdrawal, I was left with two questions. What makes this series so compelling, and where can I get some? I’m a novelist myself, and I teach writing, so I recognized the basic ingredients. Great characters? Check. High stakes? The highest: life or death, honor or disgrace, the fate of kingdoms. Interesting settings? Fascinating and vividly imagined. All sterling attributes in a novel, and enough to make any work compelling, but I felt that something more was needed to explain the three-week hole Martin’s books had blasted in my life.

And then last week, as I watched the latest episode, it finally dawned on me. The scene was one in which Cersei visits Tyrion in his much diminished quarters to suss out what he plans to tell their father. Tyrian, in turn, wants to know precisely what she’s afraid he’ll say. The dialogue between them, brilliantly written and acted, shows each one trying to elicit information from the other while concealing his/her own intentions and concerns. Each character had a strong agenda, and those agendas were at odds.

What I realized at that moment was that the same could be said of nearly all Martin’s scenes. The man seems incapable of framing any scene that is not full of conflict and hidden agendas. In scene after scene, his characters use manipulation, intimidation, flattery, seduction and every other means of persuasion to impose their will.

Sometimes the conflict is on the surface, and other things are going on underneath. Brianna and Jamie Lannister are clearly at odds as she attempts to deliver him safely to Kings Landing in return for hostages and he attempts to escape. That’s in the foreground. In the background, hardly noticed at this stage, is a growing affinity which adds depth to their scenes.

Other times, the conflict is hidden behind a veil… but it’s always there, animating the scene. Even when the primary purpose of the scene is to convey necessary information, Martin (and the series’ screenwriters) find ways to bring out the inherent conflict. For example, there is a scene in which Catelyn Stark and her son, Rob discuss the death of her father: not a particularly dynamic passage. But as they make plans to attend the funeral, Caitlin is in chains, and Rob has not forgiven her treachery. They love each other but they are at odds, and that strife bubbles to the surface of the scene.

Now, none of this is groundbreaking fictional technique. Good writers strive for maximum tension in their work, and conflict is one of the best ways of producing tension. Better writers know that all their characters, including the secondary ones, have agendas and act on them in one way or another. But only the best writers execute these principles consistently in scene after gripping scene.

So this is what I’ve learned from Martin: to seek out those hidden agendas; to frame scenes to take maximum advantage of conflicts between those characters; and to do this not once in a while, but in every scene.

How about you? Have you read Game of Thrones, or watched the TV series? What do you take away from it?

 

DangerousFictionHC_jacket2My latest mystery, A Dangerous Fiction, is coming out in July 2013 with Viking Books. It’s available now for preorder in hardcover and e-book, with a large discount on preorders of the hardcover. Also, please check out my other titles, newly available as Simon and Schuster e-books: Suspicion, Hindsight, and Rowing in Eden

Are Writers Too Accessible?

Like most writers, I was a voracious reader as a kid. Naturally I had favorite authors, though they never heard it from me. In those days, before PCs and the Internet, the only way to contact an author was to write a letter care of the publisher and hope that it was passed on; but that wasn’t the reason I didn’t try. It simply would never have occurred to me. I thought a lot about the books that captivated me, but if I thought of their authors at all, it was as unapproachably remote beings who dwelt in a literary Valhalla or possibly a garret in Paris, emerging from time to time to bestow their largess upon the world.

Cinderella

Then I grew up and went into publishing, and I discovered that writers were regular people with kids and mortgages and bad hair days. They weren’t as witty or clever or daring as their characters; they were smart but otherwise ordinary folk distinguished only by their invisible mastery of a difficult craft. But for me, that singular distinction was enough to set them apart and above. I was a literary agent for twelve years without ever fully overcoming my reflexive awe in the presence of writers I admired.

It is impossible to revere without longing to emulate. When my own work found its way into print, surprisingly little changed. Most of the time, for months at a time, I worked in my home office all day, dressed in extremely unglamorous sweats, emerging with glazed eyes whenever the clamor for dinner grew loud enough. Co-presiding over a messy but surprisingly functional ménage of two adults, two boys, and a couple of German shepherds, I was gratified by my elevation to the ranks of published authors, but I was decidedly not living in Valhalla. Still, every time a new book came out, I got to step out of my cave, clean myself up, put on a decent suit and become Barbara Rogan, Author, for an afternoon or an evening. To be an author was to be that which I had revered as a child. It was discomfiting to find myself the object of what now seemed misconceived adulation: discomfiting, but flattering.

Now we live in a world of constant and immediate accessibility. There’s hardly a published writer alive who doesn’t have a website, and many have blogs, Facebook pages, twitter accounts, etc. Readers now can learn all they want and more about the writers whose work they follow. They can contact them directly with just the push of a key. And the opposite is true as well. Writers can eavesdrop on readers’ discussions, read and rank their reviews, answer their questions, and heap abuse upon the insufficiently appreciative: not a common occurrence, fortunately, but Google “writers behaving badly” if you want to get an eyeful.

So here’s my question: Do you think writers now are too accessible?

I have mixed feelings. Mostly I think it’s a very good thing. Getting letters from readers was always one of the most fun parts of the job, but the ease of communication has greatly increased the flow. Writing is a solitary job, so feedback from smart readers is deeply encouraging. I started this blog eight months ago, and I enjoy the interaction it has brought me. I tweet as @RoganBarbara, I have an active Facebook author page, and I like being a part of the wider world.

And yet there is a downside. Writers are rarely as compelling as their best work, in which case a bit of mystery can be a good thing. And a great novel can seem like a found object rather than an artifact: something shaped by natural forces into a necessary and harmonious form that gives us pleasure. The brush strokes don’t show; the messy erasures are gone. That someone wrote the book feels almost irrelevant. In the past readers had only the book itself to relate to, and one could argue that this is how it should be. In this view of things, focusing on writers instead of on books is like handing out Academy awards to the parents of the winning actors.

What do you think?

 

DangerousFictionHC_jacket2Barnes and Noble in Carl Place, New York, has kindly invited me to celebrate the release of my new book, A Dangerous Fiction, with a reading and signing on the official pub date, July 29, 2013. We need to support our local bookstores while we still have the chance. I hope everyone who can will come out and join me at 7 PM. Please mark your calendars and spread the word!