Settings

The best way to sell a book has nothing to do with creating a platform or schmoozing with editors at writers’ conferences (though neither of those things hurt.) It’s writing a book that’s what agents call bulletproof—one so good that no one in the long chain of approvers can resist it.

Bulletproof_vest

In this blog, I talk a lot about the business of publishing, which is in a fascinating state of flux at the moment. I also write a lot about the process of submitting one’s work. But every now and then I like to take a step back to consider the basics. Writers who want to sell their work  must learn to write on their own dime; they need to master their craft. Dare I suggest that for people with writing talent, time invested in learning craft– by reading books on the subject, taking courses, working with mentors and good critique groups–will ultimately yield better results than the same amount of time spend networking?

This is part two in a series of blog posts about the craft of writing. It’s adapted from one lecture in a course I teach at www.nextlevelworkshop.com called One Good Scene, and it focuses on the importance of setting. In a later post I’ll go into the nuts and bolts of describing setting.

 Every scene takes place somewhere. That particular place and time may be actual or imagined, but that setting must feel real to the reader or nothing that takes place there will feel real. The way to accomplish this is through description that is vivid, concrete, and specific. I’ll talk more about the techniques for conveying setting in a later post; right now I want to focus on its functions in the scene.

Good writing is efficient writing. Novels may be expansive compared to short stories, but all the parts must mesh together and function in tandem or the thing won’t run. Thus setting should not be chosen at random any more than characters should be. Rather, it should be an integral part of the whole, chosen to enhance whatever the writer is trying to accomplish in that scene.

Like every other element in fiction, it should multi-task.  Setting always serves to enhance the reality of a scene, but it can also define and affect characters, advance the plot, reveal themes,  and create an appropriate atmosphere. D.H. Lawrence, no slouch in the setting department, wrote that “setting provides an ‘emotional landscape’ upon which a character’s own temperament may play counterpoint or may resonate in a wonderful symphony.”

In real life, all of us have a relationship with our environment. It affects us and we, in turn, affect it. On a macro scale, think of global warming; on a micro scale, think of the impact one person’s troubles has on his home or work environment.

In fiction, too, there is a necessary relationship between character and setting. Sometimes that connection is overt and in the foreground. In THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, for example, the sea serves as the antagonist. In a story about a pioneer family staking out a homestead, the push-pull between human desire and nature’s power  is likely to be an explicit part of the story’s plot and theme, as well as a testing ground for character. In a haunted house tale, the setting provides plot as well as characterization, since the characters’ reactions to what happens there will shed light on them.

But even in stories whose setting is kept in the background, there is still, or there should be, a relationship between setting and characterization. Our characters’ homes, their possessions, the contents of their drawers: all these can reveal much about them, if we pick the right details to highlight.

Fiction gives us the ability to inhabit our characters and see through their eyes. As you describe your setting, always consider whose eyes you’re seeing through. What your viewpoint character notices about his environment  tells us as much about him as it does about his surroundings.  A cop walking down a city street will notice completely different things than a love-struck young girl walking hand-in-hand with her boyfriend down the very same street.  In Pete Dexter’s wonderful novel Paris Trout, the title character runs a grocery store in the pre-refrigeration South. When his wife walks into the store unexpectedly, he looks at her as he would “six crates of melons that showed up unordered.” How much does that lovely bit of description tell us about Trout and the state of his marriage?

Setting  Reveals Theme and Create Atmosphere

For examples of settings that embody a book’s theme and create its atmosphere. think of the great Gothic novels: the descriptions of Manderlay in Rebecca, of the heath in Wuthering Heights. As John Gardner wrote, “Description is the author’s way of reaching deep into his unconscious.” It is symbolic, not because the writer deliberately plants symbols like someone secreting Easter eggs around the yard, but rather because the symbols arise out of the writer’s deep, often preconscious understanding of what the book is about: its theme.

Because descriptions appeal directly to the senses, they evoke the emotions that are linked to those sensory memories, some of which are fairly universal. The smell of fresh-cut grass, fresh-baked bread, or a baby’s hair are likely to evoke not only images but feelings in the reader. And those feelings create a certain atmosphere.

To illustrate, here are two different versions of a brief scene:  a character walking to his van.

1. Caleb walked down the street to his van.

 

What do you know about Caleb from this line? Where is he? What time of day, what season? What does his van tell you about him?  How do you feel about him? What sort of feeling does the scene leave you with?

Don’t know? Let’s try version 2.

 

2.    Caleb shuffled down the avenue in his oversized duffle coat, his cap pulled down low. He kept to the curb, skirting the light cast by plate-glass windows full of Christmas decorations and fancy goods he couldn’t afford and wouldn’t want if he could. His stomach growled at the smell of roasting chestnuts and spitted meat, but he passed the carts without pausing. Women were all around him, soft and fleshy, streaming out of office buildings, weaving between cars,  pooling on corners as they waited for the lights to change, bending to adjust a shoe strap, flashing their legs, swinging their shiny hair, laughing and talking, though never to Caleb. He saw them, but they never saw him…until he was ready for them to see.

He circled the van before opening the door, checking for tickets, but of course there were none; he’d been careful to park legally. The van was a white Dodge Caravan, not so old as to attract attention but too old to warrant stealing. The exterior was grimy, the interior immaculate. The engine was good. He hadn’t had to do a thing to the van since taking it off the old man, except for the tinted windows, and those were a necessary expense.

 

What do you know about Caleb? Where is he? What time of day, what season? What does his van suggest about him?  How do you feel about him?  What sort of feeling does the scene leave you with?

Can you answer those questions now?

What about your own work? As you think about it now, is setting integral or incidental to your stories?

 

More on settings

More on craft

Information on ONE GOOD SCENE and my other online writing workshops

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  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.

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

Good Writers are Good Editors

 

Consider this scenario.  The first novel of writer John Doe has landed on the desk of a leading literary agent. Attached to the title page is a post-it from the agent’s assistant: “Good writer!” it says. The agent eyes the note and sighs. She has meetings lined up back to back all day, fifty calls and emails to return, and a three-foot pile of manuscripts waiting to be read. But she has ten minutes before her next meeting starts, and so she reaches for the manuscript.

The first couple of pages are enough to tell her the writer has talent. She takes the manuscript home, reads a few chapters, and stops when she determines that the writing is not quite good enough. The next day, she hands it back to her assistant. “Close,” she says, “but no cigar.”

Potential isn’t enough. Talent doesn’t equal execution. Either it’s on the page, editors say, or it’s not. Back the book goes, and in all likelihood John Doe will never know why or how close he came.

The only fictional part of this scenario is the writer’s name. The event itself  happens all the time. One could write a whole book on Why Bad Things Happen to Good Writers, bemoaning the impersonal, bottom-line state of publishing, but such a book would be of little comfort or service to writers struggling to break through.  Rejection is part of the writer’s world, perhaps even a functional part of the artistic process. (See “What if JP Rowling Had Self-Published?”) What’s really unfortunate (though unavoidable, given the volume) is that most rejections come with little or no explanation or guidance. Writers are expected to master the craft on their own time, which means learning not only how to write but also how to edit.

As the comment section of my last post revealed, there’s a lot of debate about the value of outlining for fiction. But there’s virtually none among professional writers about the value of revision…probably because they couldn’t have become professionals without learning  it. In my experience, including 15 years as a literary agent and editor, most writers spend as much time editing their stories as they do writing them.

Here are a few thoughts on revision from some writers you may have heard of:

“My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” — John Updike

 

256px-Roald_Dahl“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

 

“But why must writers edit their own work?” I’ve been asked by aspiring writers.  “Writers write and editors edit; isn’t that the way it works?”

Well, no, that’s not how it works. Writers do need editors to see what they’re too close to see, but that’s at a later stage. To get to that stage, they first need the ability to edit their way toward the heart of their stories.

Imagine Rodin sculpting “The Thinker.” Does he simply envision the finished work, grab his chisel, and sculpt it fluently in all its detail? Of course not; such a thing is inconceivable. The vision must be there, or nothing will happen, but we understand instinctively that the artist must first produce a rough version, which he then goes on to refine and perfect.

450px-Le_Penseur_de_Rodin_à_Saint-Dié

So, too, with fiction. No matter how impeccable writers are, their first drafts will be but a rough approximation of what their stories could become. 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 theme. Many writers do not fully understand what they’re writing about until they’ve written it. Only after they become conscious of their underlying themes can they go back and enhance their expression.

Good writers are good editors.

Disagree if you dare; or share some of your own tips on editing.

 

In my Next Level school of writing, I offer a 14-week online workshop called “Revising Fiction,” which leads participants (who must have a completed draft of a novel) through a series of edits. This workshop is intensive and requires a significant commitment of time. But the reward is commensurate with the effort, as students come out the other end with a greatly improved novel and tools that they can go on to apply to everything else they write. The next workshop will be offered in the August 2015. A couple of spots are left. For more information, or to get on my emailing list  (most classes fill entirely from that list), drop me a line.

 

 

In Praise Of Outlines

 

In a recent blog post, novelist Donna Gillespie makes an eloquent case for writing without an outline, a clarion call for writers to shed their bonds and dive into their stories. Outlining is a “soul-killing, oxygen-sucking waste of time.” Just start writing, she advises, and the story will emerge.  As Gillespie has had several novels published, she’s clearly found a method that works for her, and I never argue with what works. I do, however, take issue with any one-size-fits-all prescription. Different strokes for different folks, after all; and “what works” can change over a writer’s lifetime or on a book-by-book basis— mysteries, I’ve found, require more mapping out than literary novels.

I recommend you read her post for yourselves; there’s a lot of good advice in there, including my favorite line: “Don’t think it through; write it through.” I remind myself of that truth every time I hit a snag in the planning stages; I’ve done this long enough to have faith that by the time I get to actually writing the scene, the solution will be clear. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t plan at all, just that one shouldn’t obsess over a few holes in the outline.

For the sake of writers who haven’t found their way yet, I felt someone should make the case for outlining, because for most fiction writers, it is an extremely effective tool.

I freely concede from the outset that outlining isn’t fun. I had a student once who loved it, but he was an engineer by trade.  For most writers, and certainly for me, it’s the hardest part of the job, the headache-inducing prelude to the fun of writing and revising.

I once sold a movie option to a novel I hadn’t finished writing. That’s a long story and I won’t tell it all now, because it has to do with race and writing and that’s not my subject here. The short version is that I’d fallen out with my publisher over a racial disparity in my latest novel—I was white, the protagonist black—and withdrew the manuscript in a bit of a huff. It made for a good bit of publishing gossip, and my agent told it over lunch to a producer friend, who was curious enough to read pages that night. He liked them; the upshot was a movie deal and a flurry of activity that culminated in the dispatch of a screenwriter, sent to extract the ending of my novel so he could finish his screenplay.

We sat in my living  room, and he asked questions that I struggled to answer, because the answers didn’t exist; they hadn’t been written yet. The more probing the questions, the more uncomfortable I felt. It was like taking an exam on a subject I’d never studied but was expected to know, only more visceral than that: an  intimate discomfort, as if he were trying to extract something that wasn’t ready to be born.

That, in a heightened form, pretty much describes the sensation of outlining. Summarizing a story that has not yet been born is a painful exercise. Characters come out flat and utilitarian. Plotlines emerge naked and shivering, barely viable. An embryonic story is not a thing of beauty.Foetus_in_the_Womb_detail

And yet I do outline my books before I write them, more so now than when I was a young writer. What’s worse, I make my writing students do it too: not because it’s the only way to write, but because it’s well worth trying, for several reasons.

1. Professionals do it. Not all; I know several first-rate writers who never outline. But the vast majority of published writers I know put in a great deal of preparatory work before they begin writing their novels; and as a former literary agent and editor, I’ve known quite a few.

2, Outlining is more efficient. If you know where you’re heading, chances are you’ll spend a lot less time revising after the first draft is done.

3. There’s less chance that the writer will lose his way. A lot of novels die on the vine. Writers lose focus and impetus, and their stories end up dead on the side of the road. As a writing teacher, I see for more books lost due to lack of planning than to too much.

4. Outlining reveals major problems in one’s concept for a novel, which gives the writer a chance to address them before investing hundreds of hours in a structure that’s fundamentally unsound.

5. Writing an outline builds up a head of steam. When you spent weeks or months planning, researching and outlining a novel, it is the most tremendous relief to actually start writing it. A lot of energy has been pent up; when it’s released, it provides great impetus to the novel.

 

Outlines aren’t straightjackets. Stories grow and evolve in the telling. The book I take to the dance is very different from the book I go home with, a fact of writing that agents and editors know well. Things happen during the writing, magical things sometimes, and those get incorporated. Sometimes the story takes an unexpected detour; you never know what you’ll find. Road trips don’t always go as planned either, but as every traveler knows, it helps to have a map.

Map

What works for you? Have you tried both outlining and winging it? Does it depend on the book, do you think, or the writer?

Cross-Writing: Gender Bending Through Fiction

 

I read a good book lately, and it got me thinking, as good books tend to do. The book was RESTLESS, by British novelist William Boyd, and it’s about two women, a mother and her grown daughter. The mother had a secret history as a spy in World War II, which she reveals to her daughter through journal entries. The story unfolds through their alternating points of view.

At some point, it occurred to me that these two fully realized female characters, and their voices, were created by a man. Nothing in the novel tipped me off; no false note ever sounded. This male writer   had successfully channeled two perfectly convincing women. And what struck me about this feat is that it was both unexceptional and magical.

Unexceptional in that most good writers do it all the time. They have to; a writer who can write from the perspective of only one sex is badly handicapped. Not every attempt succeeds, even among the great. Hemingway wrote one of the most laughable female characters I’ve ever read. Of course, he also created Lady Brett Ashley, offsetting that other failure, but not even she got her own POV.  On the other end of the scale, romance novelists have a tendency to create male characters who would never survive outside the rarified pages of romance novels. Nevertheless, creating convincing characters of the opposite sex is one of the tricks of the trade, so common as to pass unnoticed most of the time; ii’s the rule rather than the exception.

Yet it’s also magical, if you think about it, this gender alchemy. Fiction writers constantly project themselves into characters different from themselves, one might argue; what’s so special about this difference? I would answer that gender is the first identifier, the most basic differential. Its primacy is revealed in the language. When we describe ourselves as “a white Jewish male” or a “conservative Southern woman,” gender is the noun, while the other descriptions are adjectives. “The other half” means the opposite sex. Countless tomes have been written explaining men to women and women to men. “Write what you know,” writers are constantly told; but who among us, apart from transsexuals, really knows what it’s like to inhabit the world as the opposite sex?

So how do fiction writers pull it off?  To create any character, you have to get inside him: walk in his shoes, see through his eyes. This is true whether or not the writer uses that character’s POV. As writers we draw not only on our own experience, but also on observation and imagination. Thus the ability to create convincing characters of any gender, let alone the opposite one, is not something we’re born with. Rather, if my experience is typical, it’s learned incrementally.

Like most writers, I started out writing from the POV of a character of my own gender. That sufficed for the first book, but not the second, CAFÉ NEVO, which required a wider palette and multiple POV’s. That was a long time and many books ago, but I still remember the exhilaration and trepidation of those initial forays into the Other.

I started out, as I did with every character, with the things we had in common.  One of my male POV characters was a writer, so right away I knew understood some things about him. That character was also a parent, and not a monstrous one; that is, he loved his son. His method of expressing it might be different, but love is love. All the basic, deep emotions are felt by both sexes, and that is a lot of similarity to work with.

But then I also had to think about the differences between my male and female characters, insofar as those differences were gender-based. Every character is an individual, but gender is a big part of who we are. I’m not going to start cataloguing those differences or figure out the relative roles of nature and nurture; suffice it to say that a writer who fails to take these differences into account is unlikely to create convincing characters of the opposite sex. So, too, a writer who fails to take the commonalities into account. In A FAREWELL TO ARMS, Hemingway seems to regard women as an altogether different species from men; his Catherine Barkley is, in my opinion, a mere plot device meant to showcase the travails of the real,  i.e. male protagonist. (Sorry to keep busting on Papa, especially as he was kind enough to blurb my upcoming book, A DANGEROUS FICTION, but I’m still smarting from that ludicrous childbirth/death scene in the end of that book, which could have been written for Downton Abbey. Not that I don’t love Downton Abbey, but still.}

Any writer who wants to grow needs to write credible characters of both sexes. But forget “needs to;” the primary reason for doing it (and for writing in general) is that it’s huge fun. Writing enables us to transcend all sorts of boundaries. I will never be a man; that direct experience is denied me in this lifetime. But I can inhabit my male characters, and through them I can shoulder my way through the world; experience male friendship; get into fights; size up a woman and calculate my chances; feel a father’s love and widower’s agony;  fall in love as a boy and look back on it wistfully as an old man. Cross-writing’s a bit like cross-dressing, but writers go deeper, donning bodies and souls instead of just clothes. And just as real-life experience feeds fiction, so does fiction enrich real life.

cross-dressing

I’m interested in other writers’ experiences in this area. Do you write viewpoint characters of the opposite sex? How do you take their gender into account, if at all, and what have you learned through your adventures in cross-writing?

 

“Too Much Body Language,” She Said, Frowning.

There’s a secret to getting a first novel published, and it has nothing to do with platform, connections, or the ebb and flow of publishing’s tides. Not that those things don’t matter. They do matter as secondary factors, but only if a prior condition is met: the novel itself needs to be irresistible.

I’ll give you an example from my years as a literary agent. I once received a manuscript that by every reasonable standard should have been rejected at first glance. Not only was the ms. full of handwritten corrections, it was actually printed on the back of previously used paper. Someone who couldn’t be bothered to submit a clean copy was unlikely to have written anything I could sell. I glanced at the first sentence, just to confirm my expectations. Then I read the next line, and the next. The voice was strong and authoritative, the voice of a writer who knows he’s got a story to tell and the chops to tell it.  I took the manuscript home with me and finished it that night. It was an extraordinarily entertaining Western about a Jewish peddler whose quest for the lost tribe of Israel takes him into Indian country: a sort of Jewish “Little Big Man.” It wasn’t perfect, but the story was like nothing I’d read before, the characters were fully realized and fascinating, and the scenes were wonderfully crafted. I called the writer the next day and offered representation.

In an industry that agrees on very little, there’s near unanimity on the best route to breaking into print. In a recent interview with Viking editor Tara Singh, I asked, “What’s the most important thing writers can do to help themselves get published?” This was her response:

I think the most important thing a writer can do is to write a really good book. This may not be a very helpful answer, but it really is the most important thing. Have others read your work, go to writers workshops, put it away and come back to it if you need to, but make it good.

Beyond that, I do think that publishers are paying much more attention to whether or not an author has an online presence. Is he or she active on facebook? Does he or she have thousands of twitter followers? That said, most writers won’t have that and I think that if you spend your time worrying about creating an amazing online presence rather than writing a really good book, you’d be spending your time poorly.”

So all I have to do is write an irresistible book, you may be thinking. Brilliant. And just how do I do that? But please note that I said irresistible, not perfect. No book ever emerges perfectly formed, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. It’s a process, and good writers are grateful for the input of good editors. So you don’t have to write a perfect book, which I hope is reassuring, just an irresistible one. What makes a book irresistible is, for me, a combination of things: an original story; interesting characters who jump off the page; and the mastery of craft required to do that story justice.

Writers are expected to master that craft on their own dime, not the publisher’s. For that reason, I’m inaugurating an occasional series of craft tips for fiction writers, many drawn from the writing courses I teach online at Next Level Workshops. These are  not intended as proclamations from on high or any sort of writing orthodoxy, but rather as distillations of lessons I’ve learned over 30 years as a writer, literary agent and editor. I hope you find them useful.

LESSON ONE: BEATS VS. DEADBEATS

A beat, for the purpose of this discussion, is everything in a passage of dialogue except the spoken words and speaker attribution (he said, she asked, etc.) That would include bits of description, interior monologue, action,  and the nonverbal parts of conversations, aka body language.

Dialogue needs occasional beats for rhythm and to bring in other dimensions of the scene. How many beats a writer uses is a matter of personal style. Stretches of straight dialogue can be useful to allow readers to really hear the characters’ voices in their heads without constant interruption. But if you overdo it, you impoverish the scene, you take away its physicality.  The effect for the reader is like listening to a TV with no picture.

A deadbeat is a beat that brings nothing to the party, or at most a measly can of beer. If a beat doesn’t contribute something meaningful to the scene, beyond what the dialogue itself conveys,  find a beat that will.

It’s my contention that most—not all, but most—descriptions of body language fall into the category of deadbeats. They’re the fallback beat, the first ones most writers resort to. And to some extent they’re necessary; without them, we’d miss some nuances, especially when the characters’ expression or body language contradicts what they’re saying. The trouble arises when writers overuse or misuse them as a means of telling what the character feels in the guise of showing.  Like weeds, deadbeats tend to crowd out beats that would actually enhance the garden.

It’s easiest to show with an example. Here’s a short passage in three variations.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said.

“Suit yourself,” she said.

The lines of dialogue are evocative, but it’s not clear how the speakers mean them or what’s going on underneath the words. Suppose you, as the writer, want to keep the dialogue but add to it. If you’ve fallen into the habit of reaching first for body language, your next version might read like this.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said, frowning.

She waved an airy hand. “Suit yourself.”

More information is conveyed, to be sure, but at a price. You’re now basically telling the reader how the characters feel, instead of letting them feel it themselves.  And you’re not adding a lot. We already know the male speaker is unhappy, so “frowning” is a deadbeat. Her “airy wave” is a bit better, but her line itself is already dismissive. Another deadbeat, this one bearing a measly can of beer.

So you cross out those lines and reach further afield for an image that will illuminate, and you come up with a third variation.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he said.

She kept her eyes on her magazine, though she wasn’t turning any pages. The room was silent but for the faint, mournful whistle of a freight train.

“Suit yourself,” she said at last.

 

That mournful train whistle conveys a sense of melancholy, and the mention of a train suggests a crossroad. The woman’s pretense of reading shows the disconnect between two people who seem once to have been connected. Suddenly these spare lines of dialogue are imbued with a sense of parting and finality; and readers will feel it.

Capisce?

This piece was adapted from one of my online Next Level  workshop “Revising Fiction.” I will be offering “Revising Fiction”  starting August 13, 2015. Eight writers max, very intensive. (See testimonials) Applicants are asked to submit a writing sample. For more information, email me  at next.level.workshop@gmail.com

MY YEAR IN BOOKS

It’s the time of year for lists and gift-giving, so I’m combining the two in this list of novels I loved this year. They’re not necessarily books that were published during 2012; in fact, some of them go back a decade or more  (which shows you how far behind I am in my reading.) They belong to no particular genre, but are simply my favorite ten books among the hundred or so I must have read this year, chosen because they blew me away and sent me scrambling to find other work by the author. As much as we moan and groan about the publishing industry, there is certainly no dearth of good fiction out there. I hope you find some books here that you’ll enjoy reading and giving.

OBLIVION by Peter Abrahams. This 2009 thriller features a brain-damaged detective. It works on every level.

BORDER CROSSING by Pat Barker. I believe I’ve read every book Pat Barker has written. She’s a writer’s writer, and one of the greatest living English writers, in my not-so-humble  opinion.

THE SISTERS BROTHERS by Patrick deWitt. Comic and tragic, a skewed Western.

THE SCOTTISH PRISONER  by Diana Gabaldon. Gabaldon is the most generous of writers, and this novel featuring Lord John Gray  is no exception.

GAME OF THRONES by George R. R. Martin, plus sequels. Don’t start this series unless you have a month or two to spare.

STILL LIFE by Louise Penny. This is actually the first in her mystery series starring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Like I said, I’m behind on my reading. But having read the first, I’m scrambling to catch up.

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME by Donald Ray Pollock. Set in the mid-1900’s, Pollack’s book has totally deranged killers, a cast of grostesque but fascinating characters and an unlikely hero.

GONE GIRL by Gillian Ryan. Super-clever page-turner about the world’s most dysfunctional marriage. I also loved her earlier books.

THE EIGHT DWARF, by Ross Thomas. Thriller set in post WW II, wonderfully written with unforgettable characters.

THE PATRICK MELROSE NOVELS by Edward St. Aubyn. This collection of related novels contains the most brilliant writing I read all year, and he sure doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff.

That’s my list. How about you:  what stand-out books did you read this year?

Films About Writers: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

 

Sorry to be late with this post. I spent the last few days recuperating from a movie I saw over the weekend. The Words is about a writer who plagiarizes the work of another writer, gains fame and fortune, and is then confronted by the real author. It should have been a good story, if not a particularly cinematic one. Instead, it was a particularly egregious offender in a long line of terrible movies about writers.

 

Part of the problem is surely that it is so difficult to make anything dramatic of the writer’s process. If you were to set up a WebCam in front of my computer, here’s what you would see: Writer stares at screen for 20 min.; writer types a sentence; writer stares at screen. Repeat.  Not exactly the stuff of scintillating cinema. Moviemakers, and readers in general, tend to mistake the product for the process. The most exciting book in the world is written in the same sedentary fashion as the most tedious.

Naturally, filmmakers need to spice it up. Teeth are gnashed, hair is ripped out at the roots, grooves are worn in old wooden floors. Shakespeare In Love was one of those: an otherwise estimable film that couldn’t resist tarting up the writing process with histrionics, as if the plays were written not in ink but in blood. The Words featured an early montage of such melodramatic agonies of creation. I smirked, but with a sinking sensation. Next came the scene in which a publisher summons the writer, praises his book to the skies, and then declines to publish it. I nearly choked on my popcorn. As if!  Filmmakers go to immense pains to make every detail of their police and CIA procedurals as realistic as possible. Why, then, is it okay to write such a ludicrous scenes about the writer’s life? No publisher ever calls a writer in to reject his work in person. It is done through intermediaries: his agent, if he has one, or an e-mail, or simply through no reply. When I saw that scene, I knew I was in trouble. The film also had difficulty differentiating between the roles of publishers and literary agents, very basic stuff. And when it quoted from the miraculous purloined book in question, the prose was so flat and boring (think Hemingwayesque, if Hemingway had had a tin ear instead of perfect pitch) that the whole premise of the story was undermined.

According to the movies, lots of writers are psychotic. It seems to be a professional hazard. See Meryl Streep as the romance novelist from hell in She Devil. Johnny Depp develops a split personality in Secret Window, while in As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson suffers from multiple psychological problems. Writers are always being pursued by characters from their own books (especially if the book in question was written by Stephen King) or vengeful fans (ditto). You’d never see writers in films as they are in real life: working stiffs with kids in school and mortgages to pay.

Still, every once in a while, a film gets it gloriously right. I loved Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,  the story of Dorothy Parker, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and the Algonquin Round Table: the writers’ Camelot brought to life. Capote was a brilliant movie about a writer who falls in love with his subject but sacrifices him for a better ending to his book. I felt it says something true about writers. And who could forget the Coen brothers’ hallucinatory Barton Fink? John Goodman as Satan is perfect, and so is John Turturro as the aspiring screenwriter who vacillates in a very writerly way between hubris and terror.

How about you? What are the best and worst movies you’ve seen about writers?

Can Writing Be Taught?

My last post about the bloodsuckers who prey on writers stirred up some interesting discussions on writers’ forums that I frequent. One writer, Cammy May Hunnicutt, agreed that paid reviews and submission services exploit naive writers and provide no real benefit, but she questioned my assertion that the one thing worth paying for is education, learning the craft.  “People,” she wrote, “are dying to think they can spend some money and become ‘good’ writers.  Not really so.”

This is an interesting statement; and based on 15 or so years of teaching fiction writing, I have to agree with it, if by “good” we mean extraordinary, publishable. To get to that level,  there has to be some natural ability in the mix. But talent isn’t everything; it isn’t even enough. Writers need craft, too. We don’t make it all up from scratch each time we start a story. We learn stuff and build on what we’ve learned to do more, the same as in any art. Just as painters need to master perspective, so must writers master point of view. Just as musicians must learn structure to write fugues, so must writers  learn to structure their stories for maximum effect. These techniques can be taught to any reasonably literate, motivated person, so I believe that nearly everyone can learn to write better; and that is something most writers aspire to.

But Cammy, bless her, was not convinced. “‘[You say] ‘You can’t learn to be good, but can learn to be better.’  Let me ask you how much that counts for.  You see writers who are really sweet and don’t get published, others who write junk and make millions.  If I can use athletics as a metaphor, I’ve seen the workshops and camps and coaching.  And being ‘better’ is seldom good enough at the level that the average person can access.  I don’t see it as an investment that will return, but a money drain.”

Cammy asks tough questions, but fair ones. It’s true that all the training in the world isn’t going to get a mediocre hoopster onto the Knicks. Writers who study with me are strongly motivated—they have to be, to participate in my strenuous workshops—and over the years, quite a few have gone on to publish.  I take enormous pleasure and pride in  their success–but they are a minority. The hard truth is, many of my students will never publish unless they self-publish. The bar to trade publication is extremely high, and even for the most talented, there are numerous obstacles along the way. So what is the point of writing classes for those who won’t achieve that? Could teaching itself be exploitative?

I don’t believe it. People deserve a chance to strive for their goal, however difficult it may be. Besides, you can’t always tell who will and who won’t end up getting published. I’ve been surprised more than once. Sometimes a genre gets really hot and the bar is lowered a bit as publishers scramble for material, so that agents and editors may be willing to take on a manuscript that needs more work than they’d normally invest. Other times I’ve seen students who start out with major deficits learn really, really quickly—just soaking things up because they’re ready for them. (See Mika’s story.)Where a writer starts isn’t necessarily an indication of where she’ll end up.

Some of my students are going to end up self-publishing their work–a statistical certainty these days. In those cases too, I think they’re doing a good thing for themselves and their books and their eventual readers if they learn all they can about the craft of writing. Doesn’t have to be through classes, either. A detailed critique by an editor or writer with serious chops (scroll down on this page for a list of things to look for in a writing teacher and editor) can be an eye-opener, serving not only to improve the work in question but to provide the writer with tools they can apply to everything they write thereafter.  If that’s not in the budget, there are excellent books on writing available, and libraries where they can be had for free.

To me it seems self-evident that writers, like painters and musicians, need to master the tools of their trade; but, as Cammy was brave enough to point out, I have a vested interest in believing this. So let me ask the writers among you to weigh in with your thoughts and experience on Cammy’s challenging question: Can writing be taught?

 

My purpose here is not to tout my classes; in fact, I’m taking a hiatus from teaching and editing for the next 4-5  months to work on a book. If, however, you are interested in taking one of my workshops when I resume, the best way to get in is to get on my emailing list, which you can do by emailing me at www.nextlevelworkshops dot com.