writing

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Talking With George Saunders: Part 2

In his most recent book, George Saunders quotes “movie producer and all-around mensch,” Stuart Cornfield, to make a point not only about movies but about writing – – “…every structural unit needs to do two things: (1) be entertaining in its own right and (2) advance the story in a non-trivial way.”

Doesn’t seem like much, does it? But for writers, the twosome may be more challenging than you think. To entertain should not be taken lightly. And you cannot do it randomly, either. At the same time it must advance your story, meaning “randomness” is the enemy!

Often this calls for variety in your story, but again, you face the danger of variety for the sake of variety. Chekhov, Saunders’ hero in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a natural at this. Says George: “Chekhov’s instinct seems to be toward variation, against stasis. One of his gifts is an ability to naturally impose variety on a situation that a lesser writer would leave static.”

(OK, static sorts. Take a step forward and admit it. Or watch as Chekhov takes a step backwards, leaving you exposed.)

This brings us to these famous dictums for writers:

  1. “Don’t make things happen for no reason.”
  2. “Having made something happen, make it matter.”

You see, again, the relentless campaign against the random? A particularly contrary writer might wail, “But, hold on! Life is random, so why can’t I write random?”

Because, Saunders seems to be saying, writing is a controlled random – an exquisite, oxymoronic dance of sorts.

Thus, he writes, “In workshop we sometimes say that what makes a piece of writing a story is that something happens within it that changes the character forever.”

Tall, meet order.

To quote Chekhov (and Saunders does so, early and often): “Art doesn’t have to solve problems, it only has to formulate them correctly.”

Happy formulating, then. It’s what make writing such an enjoying challenge!

 

 

Talking With George Saunders: Part 1

In many ways, George Saunders’ new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, hits all my buttons. Chief among them is its use of short stories by four Russians — Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Gogol – to illustrate key points on the making and enjoyment of literature. I’ve been reading the Russkies since being knee-high to a praying mantis. Thus, being a Russophile (literary-wise, anyway) and a writer as well, I found myself doing something I seldom do with my books: annotating it as I went along.

Talking to Saunders, is what it amounted to, even though the odds of me ever attending his distant Syracuse writing class lie somewhere between slim and none.

I decided to share a bit here with other readers interested in writing and reading. First, I’ll provide the Saunders remarks that gave rise to some questions and thoughts. Then I’ll offer what I’d say if I were in Saunders class (if my classmates and professor kindy allowed, that is).

For Part 1 of who knows how many, here’s Saunders on one of the simpler “laws” of fiction. You know how laws get one’s ire up. Can you break them? Are they good laws? And what about the caveats, both mentioned and un-?

Saunders:

 

“Earlier, we asked if there might exist certain ‘laws’ in fiction. Are there things that our reading mind just responds to? Physical descriptions seem to be one such thing. Who knows why? We like hearing our world described. And we like hearing it described specifically (‘Two men in green sweaters were playing catch beside a wrecked car’ is better than ‘I drove through this area that was sort of bland and didn’t notice much.’) A specific description, like a prop in a play, helps us believe more fully in that which is entirely invented. It’s sort of a cheap, or at least easy, authorial trick. If I am trying to put you in a certain (invented) house, I might invoke ‘a large white cat, stretching itself out to what seemed like twice its normal length’ on a couch in that house. If you see the cat, the house becomes real.

“But that’s only part of the move. That cat, having been placed in that particular story, is now, also, a metaphorical cat, in relation to all of the other dozens (hundreds) of metaphorical elements floating around in the story.

“And that cat now has to do some story-specific work. Or, we might say, it’s going to be doing some story-specific work, whether it chooses to or not, by its very presence in the story; the question is what work it’s going to be asked to do and how well it will do it.”  (pp. 27-28)

 

On the surface, there seems little to debate here. Of course a more detailed description makes a scene more believable. The writer’s skill of naming things alone counts for much in his ability to create a sustainable dream for readers.

The catch lies in how much description. It might be “easy,” as Saunders allows, to deploy spellbinding description, but the difficulty lies in when to stop describing. Readers, though they may love description, don’t have infinite patience with it. Ditto editors.

I recall, for instance, my first attempt at a novel umpteen years ago. One editor, kind enough to provide a handwritten response, lauded the description throughout but said there might have been too much (for one) and that it often came at the expense of plot, which she found weak.

Then there’s the famous rule of Chekhov’s gun (rifle, what have you). Once mentioned as hanging on the wall over the hearth, it best be used before story’s end. Which brings us to another tricky concept: which details must play a role in the story and which may not?

A gun is fairly obvious. Why bring it up in passing? But the white cat mentioned by Saunders above? Is it equal to the green sweaters also mentioned above? Almost any detail from a setting can be integrated into a future plot development, but I daresay this will hold true for only a few.

Bottom line: the writer has a problem. Two problems, actually. Yes, your writing is richer through description, but when is enough enough? Salt lends flavor, no one will deny, but too much salt can kill a dish. Put description in a shaker next to pepper, and there you have it.

Additionally, it seems a case of overthinking matters to wonder which objects in any given description must do some “story-specific work,” as Saunders states, merely by dint of their presence. What if the description is implying something about a character, for instance? Does that count, or must it be woven into plot?

All of which brings me back to my own writing precept: Nothing is as simple as it seems. Even if George Saunders calls it a “cheap, or at least easy, authorial trick.”

Bad Words: They Creep In

word

Bad words. They lose themselves in the crowd, but they are more prevalent than you think. Some of them are obvious, like the word “closed” in the expression “closed fist.” Modifiers are always guilty until proven innocent, and a better noun or verb always trumps an unnecessary modifier, so until they prove themselves good, adjectives and adverbs are suspect.

In his book Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry, Stephen Dobyns lists some so-called “bad words” to watch out for, but before we go there, know this: We all have our own personal list of bad words. These would be words we overuse without realizing it.

One way to track your word habits is to use the Search in Document function on Microsoft Word, the popular software many writers use. Or you could go to a website that will track words for you. Simply cut and paste your poem, essay, chapter, etc., and let the ghost in the machine scare up some statistical habits you have as a writer of words. Once such site is this one.

As for Dobyns, he lists the following culprits: still, even, some, yet, very, just, clearly, only, finally, quite, somewhat, rather, fairly, big, deep, loud, bright, etc.

You can highlight your poem or text and use the Search in Document function to scare these up one at a time. The deal then is to ask yourself: Can I do without this word entirely? Can I change it?

Sometimes the answer is yes. Strike, kill, and shout “Eureka! Less is more!” Sometimes the answer is no. This may be a “bad word,” you tell yourself, but if I use it infrequently and, where I do, it is key to the sentence or line’s meaning, it becomes a “good word.”

The point here is at least going through the exercise and making it part of your revision process. Add Dobyn’s bad words to your own list of unreliable go-to’s. Then search and, where appropriate, destroy.

Submittable Q & A

sub

Periodically I like to send questions to my fellow submitting Submittable Warriors, also known as “writers.” Their answers show that we all share a similar range of experiences using this technological convenience. Here’s a sampling of the Q & A’s.

What is it like waiting for RECEIVED submissions to flip over to IN PROGRESS submissions, and IN PROGRESS submissions to progress to a decision?

  • “It’s like watching water wait to wait to be boiled.”
  • “Like political ads. Excruciating and maddening.”
  • “Have you ever played fetch with a tortoise? You know. You fling the lettuce, then yell in its face: ‘Go on, boy! Go on!’ Like that.”
  • “Like looking forward to Christmas on December 26th.”
  • “Auditing a course on studying wallpaper.”
  • “The word ‘Received’ is my mantra for morning meditations, ‘In Progress’ for nightly ones. Has been for 8 months. Maybe your question’s a koan.”
  • “Like watching The Food Network. Eternal similarity. Stubborn persistence. Few payoffs.”

When is it worth paying a reading fee?

  • “When you’re accepted and it’s a paying market. Other than that, never.”
  • “When the journal is worthy of financial support. That way, you can look at it as a non-deductible contribution to a good cause.”
  • “When no one will read you for free.”
  • “I do it to reward audaciousness.”
  • “I haven’t done so because every time I email an editor about my writing fee, I get virtual crickets. Have you ever heard a virtual cricket?”
  • “When you want to brag about a certain magazine soliciting your stuff. Just don’t mention that your ‘stuff’ is a credit card as opposed to your poems.”

How many simultaneous submissions do you typically make for any given work?

  • “Three. Maybe I’ve been hard-wired by bad jokes, but everything comes in threes and that includes my submissions ceiling.”
  • “I don’t believe in simul-subs. This gives me plenty of time to revise my work between submissions, meaning no two submissions of the same work are ever alike.”
  • “You mean you count them?”
  • “I take it as a challenge. I once had a poem out at 53 markets over the course of two years, all eventually demurring. Would you say it needed work?”
  • “6.5.”

Is Submittable is more worthwhile for writers or for markets?

  • “Well, let’s see. I’m a marketing dunce, so it’s a godsend. Writers.”
  • “Definitely markets. Journals pay for the service, but if they charge a reading fee, they more than offset their costs. They profit handily. In some cases footily.”
  • “More and more markets use it, so I guess there’s good financial reasons to do so. Markets.”
  • “Submittable itself is a market. Markets benefit markets. It’s in the same aisle as corporations being people according to SCOTUS. Different but the same. Ka-ching!”
  • “Writers. How else would I know what I sent where three years ago? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.”

Why Death Is Literature’s Wingman

baxter

If you’ve ever taught literature, whether in college or in secondary school, you’ve surely come up against a common complaint from students: “Why is everything we read so depressing?” or, “Is every book, story, and poem about death, or is it just my imagination?”

Tongue in cheek, I always replied, “You’ll be happy to know that death is the great Muse, the inspiration, on some level, of much of the great literature we read and remember down through the ages.”

The students, few of whom would grow up to become English teachers, seemed less than impressed with that answer.

It all came back to me in reading Charles Baxter’s collection of essays on literature, Burning Down the House. One essay I particularly enjoyed is called “Regarding Happiness.” He opens it with an anecdote that I, as a poet and author of two books, could relate to. Let me share it:

“After a small press published my first book of poetry in 1970, I happened to be visiting my parents for a few days. On one particular evening late in my visit, my mother sat down with me during cocktail hour, a time when she often appeared to be emboldened. She held my book in her hand. Her martini was nearby, within easy reach. She studied me with a frozen smile and altered her position slightly on the sofa to give the impression that she felt relaxed; this impression failed.

“‘I’ve read your book,’ my mother said, digging for a cigarette in a mostly empty pack, having put down the book by now on the sofa cushion. She lit the cigarette, taking her time; she was in no hurry. She inhaled, and as she asked her question, smoke blew out of her nose and mouth. ‘My question is, when are you going to write a happy poem?’

“Thirty-seven years later, I cannot remember what I replied, but I hope I didn’t say what probably occurred to me: ‘Well, OK, when I’m happy, then I’ll write a happy poem.’

“Questions like the one my mother posed seem innocent, even comical, but after all, she was my  parent and was probably dismayed by my poetry and by the thoughts, images, and feelings displayed within it. Good! I wanted my poetry to dismay everybody. That was its purpose.”

Baxter’s memory resonated with me in particular because I have heard the same complaint about my collections of poetry. One GoodReads reviewer, who even took the time to cut and paste his review into Amazon, titled his review, quite simply, “Depressing.” He gave the offending depression 3 stars out of 5. I’m not sure what he gave the poetry.

As for my parents, unlike Baxter’s mother, they never directly spoke of my poems’ preoccupation with the great mystery of life (read: non-life), but I suppose the thought occurred to them as well. Why so much death? My parents place that topic in the same category as religion and politics and money: all verboten topics in polite company.

The Buddhists, among others, think differently. They counsel that we think about death and dying early and often. For them, it is a reminder of our brevity and insignificance, of our purpose while we’re here in the now, of our obligations not to desire stuff because that is the source of our misery.

Later in the essay, Baxter tells of assigning Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” to his undergraduates. Though the story unfolds in the shadow of death (a soldier returned to Michigan after WW I), it is surely as close to happiness as the protagonist, Nick Adams, is going to get. He is out in nature alone, doing what he loves to do (fishing), far away from his fellow man, far from the demons he met on the death fields of Europe.

When Baxter assigns this story to his undergraduates in college, they typically complain,”There’s no story!” and “Where’s the plot?” and “Nothing happens!”

Baxter writes: “To which my answer always has been: ‘Didn’t you ask for a story about  happiness? Well, here it is. You said you wanted happiness, but when I present it to you, you find it dull and empty’.”

You can’t win for losing, is the point. That and the fact that death, along with its depressing processional, always makes for better literature than happiness, which is best pursued without being captured (if it can be at all).

A final note. In his essay, Baxter shares a quote I quite like from Oscar Levant: “Happiness isn’t something  you experience; it’s something you remember.”

Reading this, it dawned on me that memory is like Loki the Trickster of Norse lore. It burnishes the past and makes it shine. It rids itself of any unpleasant dross. In hindsight, it looks so good that we realize we are not pursuing happiness, supposedly up ahead somewhere, it is pursuing us.

The best we can do is turn back and look at it like Orpheus or Lot’s wife, because there’s no going back.

Dead people? They say the same thing. Or would if they could.

 

 

Random Wisdom for Writers: Part Two

pencil

Here are a few more gleanings from Chuck Palahniuk’s estimable “writer advice” book, Consider ThisYesterday’s post featured the first group of ideas that might make you better at the trade. Today, the final set. Enjoy!

  • “If you can identify the archetype your story depicts, you can more effectively fulfill the unconscious expectations of your reader.” — CP
  • Readers relate when authors tell what’s known as an “awful truth.” Imperfect characters making mistakes are a reader’s delight. For one, the reader feels, “I’m not alone,” and for two, the reader feels, “Better him than me. What a train wreck! I can’t take my eyes off this!”
  • Or, as CP puts it: “People love to see others suffer and lose.” (If it helps, think politics, 2020.)
  • “Great problems, not clever solutions, make great fiction.” — Ira Levin
  • Know the difference between a story’s horizontal and its vertical. “Horizontal” = sequence of plot points, whereas “vertical” = pausing to deepen risk and tension because it is a key scene worthy of extra details and action. Too much of one (particularly horizontal) over the other will lose your readers’ interest.
  • Your plot should have a metaphorical (or sometimes real) “clock” or “gun” that readers are aware of. These may disappear, but readers should, in the back of their minds, be worried about time running out or the threat of some weapon. There are many variations, but these “plot drivers” keep the writer honest and the reader on her toes. Think James Bond movies.
  • For tension, use unconventional conjunctions sometimes for a whitewater-rushing effect that carries the reader through a particularly suspenseful scene.
  • Tension can also be harnessed through the use of an object the author recycles throughout the plot. When it reappears, the reader says, “A-ha!” or becomes nervous and wary, or begins to sleuth a bit to figure matters out. Reappearing objects are tension devices.
  • Avoid tennis-match dialogue.
  • “Never resolve a threat until you raise a larger one.” — Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Do not use dialogue to further the plot.
  • No dreams! Ever.
  • “You don’t write to make friends.” — Joy Williams
  • To mix things up in a novel, change the setting. Take your characters on a “second-act road trip.”
  • Use joy and humor as occasional relief when the going gets rough or the plot gets particularly frightening or suspenseful.
  • It is OK to depict questionable behavior in a book. Just don’t endorse or condemn it. This is the reader’s task.
  • “Any time you deny a possibility, you create it at the same time.” — CP
  • “If you can’t be happy washing dishes, you can’t be happy.” — CP
  • One troika of character types frequently used by writers: a.) the character who follows orders, is shy and agreeable, is an all-around good boy or girl; b.) the rebel who bullies, breaks rules, brags; c.) the quiet, thoughtful one who often acts as narrator observing the conflict of the first two.
  • Do not let death resolve your story. Who do you think you are — Shakespeare?
  • Reject humdrum, believable material in favor of the actual wonders surrounding you in this world. This comes under the category of truth being stranger than fiction, so make those truths PART of your fiction.

 

Of course, there’s a lot of fleshing out of these ideas with examples from many books, so if the list piques your interest, pick up a copy of Palahniuk’s book.

Oh. And get yourself in a writer’s workshop group. Although Ken Kesey said, “All workshops suck at some point,” they do force you to write when it’s your turn to make copies and get critiqued.

Plus you learn from the writers around you—both better ones and worse ones.

Random Wisdom for Writers

chuck

When it comes to reading how-to books on writing, I always make sure the author is a success him- or herself before diving in. If it’s an unknown, you’re left to ask, “If this chump knows so much about writing the world’s great novels, why isn’t he doing it himself?”

Chuck Palahniuk’s book, Consider This, certainly fills the bill, though highbrows might sniff because he writes for the masses more than posterity. I’ve read only Fight Club, but I knew  he was prolific, so I picked it up and began reading.

When I read books like this, I like to highlight random pieces of advice or quotes. This book offers a rich trove and so might be worth your while. Granted, it focuses on novel and short story writing, but writing advice is writing advice, and there is always cross-pollination when it comes to effectively working among the genres.

Here’s a sampling:

  • There are three types of communication: description, instruction, exclamation (through onomatopoeia).
  • Little voice trumps big voice. “Little voice” refers to moment by moment events, facts, objective information. “Big voice” refers to musing, meaning, a character’s subjective take. Keep big-voice philosophizing to a minimum.
  • “Action carries its own authority” — Thom Jones
  • Use physical action as a form of attribution.
  • Use actions and gestures that go against the words a character says. The contrast can speak volumes.
  • “Dialogue is your weakest story-telling tool.” — C.P.
  • Keep a journal of people’s sayings, tics, gestures. Embed them in your writing.
  • Use lists now and then to break up the action. Readers love lists, for some reason.
  • Make up rules like little kids do when they play games. Home base. Poison patch. Time limits. Requirements. Exceptions. Author Barry Hannah says, “Readers love that shit.”
  • Put your dialogue in quotes, use attribution (readers skip over “he says, she says,” so don’t worry about variations so much), and embed gestures with the attribution.
  • Avoid Latin words, abstractions, received text.
  • If you get the small stuff right and use it up front, you can get away from some pretty crazy stuff after the fact because you’ve bought the readers’ confidence (or impressed the hell out of them).
  • Use your own magical aphorism early on and win the readers’ hearts. Think Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. It sold like hot cakes.
  • Answer these questions about your protagonist before you start: “Who’s telling this? Where are they telling it? Why are they telling it?”
  • Do not write to be liked. Write to be remembered.
  • Write from within character. Instead of writing “He was 6 feet, 6 inches tall,” a character might say, “He was too tall to kiss.”
  • Write via the characters’ experiences and descriptions.
  • Don’t be afraid to be outlandish, provocative, challenging.
  • Subvert the readers’ expectations. They’ll love you for it.
  • “No two people ever walk into the same room,” said Katherine Dunn. Think of that the next time you describe a room or tackle any setting, especially with point of view in mind.
  • Answer these questions before beginning or continuing your writing project: “What strategy has your character chosen for success in life?” What education/experiences does he bring? Will he be able to adopt to a new strategy or dream?”
  • “Going on the body” means describing through the five senses. Make your readers experience the senses your characters do.

 

Of course, Palahniuk expands on all of this and makes it much more entertaining with anecdotes, but some of this gives you an idea of wisdom he’s gleaned from the writers’ workshops he’s attended and from writers he’s met along the way.

My next post will offer Part Two of CP’s pearls of wisdom.

Writer’s Weigh In With Resolutions

resolution

I emailed all the poets and writers (as a certain magazine calls them) I know (and really don’t, but I needed a lot of responses to make up a post) and asked what their writerly resolutions were. If they’re anything like mine, they’re an amusing mix of wishful thinking, good intentions, and, in some cases, playful sarcasm. (Wait. Can sarcasm be playful?)

In no particular order, from the expected to the un-, here are those responses that returned to roost in my inbox:

  • “Mine was to write for two hours first thing each morning before checking my Inbox. Then I checked my Inbox first thing this morning and am responding to this. Does this count as writing (she asks sheepishly)?” — T.H.
  • “To absolutely refuse to submit to magazines that charge reading fees and to reward those who don’t by submitting my best stuff. If more writers did this, fewer magazines would charge the fees. The fact that more and more are doing it tells me that many writers are ponying up. Why?” — B.C.
  • “Read more poetry to better inform my own poetry.” — O.L.
  • “Save money for an M.F.A. program. Do you have any, by the way?” — R.W.
  • “I’m thinking too many weird thoughts, like how sad fish heads look on plates at a restaurant. How can I write when I’m feeling sorry for dead fish eyeing the mouths that are about to consume them?” — K.T.
  • “Stop saying yes to so many fellow writers asking me to read their stuff. I need time for my own stuff, but I’m too busy being Joan of Arc to everybody else.” — V.C.
  • “Get better paying part-time work.” — T.D.
  • “Be more honest with myself. I like to kid myself, I do. I’ve told myself it’s essential to writing success, but after two years of talking the talk more than walking the walk, maybe not. I’m playing Billy Joel (“Honesty”) right now. It’s such a lonely word!” — A.A.
  • “Dump my fellow writer friends who are too competitive and jealous while calling other writers competitive and jealous. Some writers are more talented at gossip and back-stabbing and putting words in other people’s mouths than they are at writing. Delete. Dump. Move on, are my resolutions! (Does this sound angry? Good.)” — R.E.
  • “Pray more.” — I.L.
  • “I want to pay less attention to the news. It distracts and upsets me, which is horrible for writing and creativity. It’s not easy being an American these days.” — K. E.
  • “Work on writing plot! I suck at writing plots!” — N.
  • “Actually follow the stupid old advice about carrying a small pad and pencil around so I can write ideas when I think of them vs. just forget them.” — O.B.
  • “Stop looking at Submittable so much! Stop submitting so many simultaneous submissions so much! Stop saying, “I need some good news!” so much! (Though it’s true, I do. Do you have any spare good news lying around, Ken?)” — R.B.
  • “Put my writing on the Keto Diet. I am way too wordy. I’ll call all the words I delete carbs or something. You like it?” — M.N.
  • “You still owe me $50. My resolution is to collect it by Feb. 1st.” — J.L.
  • “I want to be kinder and gentler on myself. Writers take rejections too much to heart. A lot of them give up, and I’ve often felt myself wanting to give up, but they have to repeat after me: It’s part of the game and all writers, even the very best, go through it.” — G.O.
  • “Turn off my phone! Delete my social media accounts! They are sucking the living daylight hours out of me! Help!” — C.S.
  • “Experiment more. Take more chances. Avoid telling myself I can’t write about certain topics. Write what I’d want to read because I know many other people like to read the same things.” — T.D.
  • “Read across the genres instead of just the genre I’m working on. Stop reading silly free-verse blogs (smiley face).” — H.H.
  • “Stop paying my cable TV bill. That will eliminate the expensive distraction known as a TV.” — A.T.
  • “Read Ulysses. I’ve been putting it off for 17 years.” — S.D.

 

 

14 Rules for Writing from Tim O’Brien

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In Dad’s Maybe Book, author Tim O’Brien spells out some rules for writing intended for his sons, Tad and Timmy. They are equally intended for the reader, who is serving as a vicarious child of the O’Briens reading along.

Below are 14 Rules O’Brien shares, directly quoted from the book, and though he says “story” now and then, I daresay the advice works for poetry, novels, plays, and essays as well.

See if you agree:

 

1.  Review the difference between “lie” and “lay.” A good number of TV personalities, politicians, poets, recording artists, newspaper columnists, pediatricians, and crime writers should do the same.

2.  Do not be terrified of emotion. Be terrified of fraudulence.

3.  Stories are not puzzles. Puzzles are puzzles.

4.  Information is not story. Information is information.

5.  Pay close attention to the issue of simultaneity. In life, as in a good story, numerous things occur at the same time, even when your attention might be riveted on a rattlesnake coiled to strike. In other words, when you’re writing stories, do not juggle only a single ball. (Single ball jugglers rarely get hired twice to entertain at birthday parties.) Fill your stories with “nice contradictions between fact and fact.” Fill your stories with food and drink, the weather, tired feet, dental appointments, phone calls from out of the blue, upset stomachs, flat tires, pens that run out of ink, undelivered letters of apology, traffic jams, swollen bladders, and spilled coffee. These and other intrusions must be endlessly juggled as we make our way along the story lines of our lives. Therefore, don’t insulate your characters from the random clutter that distracts and infuriates and entertains all of us.

6.  Similarly, do not let excessive plotting ruin your story anymore than you would allow it to ruin your life.

7.  Bear in mind that stories appeal not only to the head, but also to the stomach, the back of the throat, the tear glands, the adrenal glands, the funny bone, the nape of the neck, the lungs, the blood, and the heart—the whole human being.

8.  You are writing not only for your contemporaries. You are writing also for a seventeen-year-old student who might encounter your story two hundred years from now, or for an old man in Denmark in the year 2420, or for a lonely widow sitting at a futuristic slot machine in the year 4620.

9.  Also, believe it or not, you are writing for those who have preceded you— for Thomas Jefferson, for the children of Auschwitz, and for a father who may no longer be present to read your story.

10.  Surprise yourself. You might then surprise your reader.

11.  Do not fear (or deny) your own ignorance. It makes for curiosity.

12.  Do not fear (or deny) ambiguity. Though the prose itself may be crystalline, good stories almost always involve people snagged up in confusing moral circumstances. Think of Raskolnikov. Think of Charles and Emma Bovary. Think of your dad.

13.  Pay attention to every word. There are twenty-six letters in the English alphabet, plus a few punctuation marks. Those twenty-six letters, if poorly arranged, will result in mediocrity, infelicity, or plain gibberish. But from those same twenty-six letters, well arranged, come the sonnets of Shakespeare. The letters of the alphabet can be likened to the four chemical bases—adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine—that constitute the building blocks of all plant and animal DNA. The precise sequence, or order, of the bases determines whether an organism becomes a polar bear or a dachshund or William Shakespeare. Therefore, along the same lines, I suggest you do all you can to arrange the letters of the alphabet in exacting sequences.

14.  Read your writing aloud. Does it make sense? Does it make music?

Never Explain

tim

Novelist and short story writer Tim O’Brien has just released Dad’s Maybe Book, an advice manual of sorts addressed to his two sons, Timmy and Tad. In it, he offers advice to the boys about life. Luckily for writers, he also offers the boys advice on writing. You never know, I figure he’s thinking, if genes will carry.

Below is an O’Brien riff on the writer’s trap known as explaining too much. And though O’Brien uses the words “fiction” and “stories,” you can bet the advice works as well for poetry, drama, and nonfiction. Here’s O’Brien:

“The essential object of fiction is not to explain. Explanation narrows. Explanation fixes. Explanation dissolves mystery. Explanation imposes artificial, arrogant order on human contradictions between fact and fact. The essential object of fiction is to embrace and widen and deepen all that is unknown and unknowable—who we are, why we are—and to offer us late-night company as we lie awake pondering our universal journey down the birth canal, and out into the light, and then toward the grave.

“In a story, explanation is like joining a magician backstage. The mysterious becomes mechanical. The miracle becomes banal. Delight vanishes. Wonder vanishes. What was once surprising, even beautiful, devolves into tired causality. One might as well be washing dishes.

“Imagine, for instance, that Flannery O’Connor had devoted a few pages to explaining how the Misfit became the Misfit, how evil became evil: the Misfit was dyslexic as a boy; this led to that—bad grades in school, chips on his shoulder. Pile on the psychology. Even as explanation, and because it is explanation, there would be, for me, something both fishy and aesthetically ugly about this sort of thing, the stink of determinism, the stink of false certainty, the stink of a half- or a quarter-truth, the stink of hypocrisy, the stink of flimflam, the stink of pretending to have sorted out the secrets of the human heart. Moreover, Timmy and Tad, I want you to bear in mind that explanation doesn’t always explain. Few dyslexics end up butchering old ladies. Evil is. In the here-and-now presence of evil, evil always purely is, no matter how we might explain it. Ask the dead at My Lai. Ask the Misfit. ‘Nome,’ he says. ‘I ain’t a good man.’ In the pages of ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find,’ Flannery O’Connor goes out of her way to satirize and even to ridicule such explanation. And for Hemingway, too, explanation is submerged below the waterline of his famous iceberg. In great stories, as in life, we are confronted with raw presence. Events don’t annotate themselves. Nightmares don’t diagnose themselves. With the first whiff of Zyklon B, with the first syllables of a Dear John letter, with the first ting-a-ling of a dreaded phone call, with the first glimpse of your own nervous oncologist, there is what purely is.”