Sunday, February 21, 2010

Revenge of the Itty Bitty.

As I've mentioned, I read literary fiction. This morning was the weekly Big Moment-- the New York Times Sunday book section. This is where I fill my to-buy list, along with the finalist lists of the big awards. No, I don't get invited to parties.

I had a crisis concerning today's book section. Why are the stories so small? Life in a small New England town? Life in a rural post office? Life on an apple farm? Don't get me wrong, writers like Marilynne Robinson are among my favorites, and she delivers quiet, invisible-from-the-sidewalk rural domestic drama like Brett Favre delivers touchdowns. And if further developments from Yoknapatawpha County became available, I will stand in line.

But why is it all like this? What happened to the big subject? I realize I'm mostly talking about great war books: Andersonville and The Naked and the Dead, big political subjects: All the King's Men, and what today you would call pseudo-celebrity books: The Great Gatsby.

Now we have the small subject. I think the issue is genre. As in, we have so freaking many now. Perhaps it's the mega-bookstores. They have to divide their shelves somehow. Perhaps it's that no bookstore that wants to stay in business will put up a section saying "hey, this is good, read this instead of the one you came in to buy!" in case the majority of their customers want the biblical conspiracy bestseller instead. About all you will encounter along that line is the dog-eared shelf notes in independent book stores announcing "Pete Recommends!" And then you just hope that Pete isn't the kid snapping his gum at the front register.

It's marketing and sales. Bookselling for a big outfit is not about serving frequent readers so much as it is about making it easy for infrequent readers to participate in whatever the current cultural phenomena might be. We can be lucky that books still play any part in that dynamic. If "everybody" is reading a certain book, it has to be on the front table, ready for easy consumption. And then the writing has to allow it to be easily consumed.

So the writers of genre novels have been packaged out of literary fiction. I adore genre writers who write well. Heck, some of them are great. I mentioned Anne Rice yesterday, who has written some passages I still remember and revisit. But my concern is that fiction is being Balkanized. Face it, if you have a string of genre bestsellers under your belt, how hard do you have to work at your writing? At what point is that a waste of time, when your next deadline is in six months? We all know stories of writers who hire "coauthors," credited or uncredited, who do the not-so-heavy lifting in the books they churn out two or three or more times a year.

I suppose I've come around to my earlier post about celebrating the bad books that earn money to support the rest, but I've also drifted from my opening question: why is literary fiction, particularly contemporary American literary fiction, all set in Lake Woebegone?

One interesting aside: this limitation seems to be avoided in Europe by writers like Umberto Eco, Ali Shaw, and Susanna Clarke, who are exploring fantastic and supernatural storylines and remaining on the literary fiction shelves. A trend worthy of watching, reading, and celebrating. They are shockingly high-concept...

So what about America, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average? A couple of things. There's the cultural egalitarianism (I don't want to finger the rabid and malignant self-esteem movement that makes all books equal, except I just did). Go in the bookstore once a year, pick up whatever is on the front table in the tallest pile, buy it, and you're a reader, and if you say it's the best book you read this year the store buyers are listening.

I will also blame short story prejudice. There's a small population of writers who can get short stories published in the important magazines and journals. If your name isn't Annie Proulx or Tobias Woolf or whoever, don't bother sending your short story to The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly. No soup for you. And what do editors say about publishing short story collections? Get them published in the big magazines first. You see the problem.

So what if you're a great writer and you have a bunch of ideas for short stories that will never see the light of day? Well, you are going to be told one thing: Write a Novel. So those ideas that could find full flesh in ten or twenty pages are now going to press in 250. You're good, so you can pull it off, and I will buy it, read it, and love it. You didn't want to turn your excellent idea for a war story into a novel and end up in the military fiction section. So it's the post office story.

Yes, there are exceptions. I loved Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, about the Vietnam War. The qualifiers here? Iowa Writers' workshop, published short stories, short story collection, film adaptation, then Tree. Heck, he was even born in Germany, although I believe he now lives in Lake Woebegon.

At the end of this tome, the conclusion is that we are looking at the return of the short story, but in long form. Ladies and gents, I give you the revenge of the itty bitty.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Some Good Stuff.

My mother had an English teacher who never let them use the words "stuff" or "things." I didn't, and this is da kine:

Link to page two at the bottom.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Oh, I'm in Trouble Now.

I'm sure you enjoy the forums over at Nathan Bransford's excellent blog as much as I do. But why, oh why, do I get into it with people on forums? The topic du jour was everyone's current favorite vampire series. Okay, not everyone's. Back in the day when I was reading about vampires, it was Anne Rice for me. I partook, and oh, did I enjoy. I wasn't a big fan of Lestat. He was a bit too wild for me. Armand was my favorite. Good stuff, and good writing. I still peruse sections of Queen of the Damned, The Body Thief, and The Vampire Armand, just for the pleasure of the writing.

So what is about to go wrong for me over at Nathan's place? Well, some people were discussing everybody's fave LDS vampire tale, and I waded in with a few opinions. I'll be honest; I could not get past the first page of the first book. A description of clothing and weather? All on one page? Be still my heart. I didn't follow the story much until the movie came out, and then I did a little research about the entire series. I found a detailed plot summary. My reaction ran along the lines of "Wait, what?"

I remember Anthony Bourdain describing his first taste of iguana tamales. He said they made him want to "stick my head in a bucket of lye and jump off a cliff." I was also reminded of the reason my mother won't let my father tell dirty jokes in her presence: "I don't want to have that kind of thing in my head."

Yeah, like that.

I know what you're thinking: "That's a good story, Grandma!" And I admit it, and it is my point: I am too damn old for that vampire series. Not because I'm not interested in the age group; the protagonist of my new novel is thirteen. I am too old as a reader.

Through high school, I read science fiction. Through college, I read plenty of romance novels (as I remember, you order them by the pound). But the day after I graduated from college I went to the excellent Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara and bought Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. From that day to this, in the fiction category, I have read almost nothing but literary fiction.

That's more than twenty years.

If Armand returns, I'll be there. Otherwise, I'm sorry, but there is no going home again.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Not the ability, the game. You know the one. Trying to find matching pairs from a grid of face-down cards. Here's a star, there's the other star. Now where did I see that chicken? I used to be pretty good at it, when I had all my OEM brain cells.

Writing fiction is a game of concentration. Here's what I mean. The book I'm writing right now, like all novels, is made up of thousands of bits of information. Scenes, gestures, emotions, moments. Two of those moments involve someone eating a small piece of rock (long story). The moments are separated by quite a long stretch of time. The main character does it the first time, in a desperate moment of hunger, and somebody else does it later in a moment of compulsion. The second moment is witnessed by the main character.

This explanation so isn't helping...

Here's my point: seed your fiction with moments that will resonate later in the story. With luck, your reader will remember when he or she sees it the second time. I hope my second scene will make a reader feel again how desperate my main character was and is. I call it a game of concentration, but such elements are really echoes through the story. Resonance. Your reader will feel smart for remembering. For finding the missing card.

One thing I'll say is not to put the matching cards too close together. I'm reading a book now that has as a title another childhood game. The author chose to build up the metaphor of the title within the story, then immediately went into a scene that involved the playing of the game. It felt too planted, to didactic. I as the reader didn't have to do any work. There was no spark between the scenes. By sitting next to each other, by touching, they had discharged all their energy.

Make your reader feel clever for finding the matching card they haven't seen since early in the game. They like to work. Promise. They love to find that chicken.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What Are the Odds?

I stumbled across a blog entry the other day asking the question: What are the odds of landing an agent? The writer provided some links to agent blogs, pointing out the dismally small number of new clients most agents take every year from the avalanches of query letters that come in their doors. Six new clients in a year of 38,000 queries? Ouch. Plus, we can assume that most of those new clients came from recommendations and conferences, not from queries. That's just how the business shakes out. Pretty bad, right?

Well, no. Because books are not widgets. They are creations of (hopefully) talented, intelligent humans. So how about changing the mindset a bit:

If you write a terrific novel and send a great query to an agent who is looking for just that kind of book, and who knows several editors who are also looking for that kind of book, your chances of landing an agent are wonderful.

If you write a terrible novel and send an awful query to an agent who wants nothing to do with your kind of book and can't name a single editor who wants anything like it, well, your odds are infinitely bad.

It's in your hands.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Subtle Much?

How fine the line between telling and showing. From the editing today, the opening sentence of a chapter:

Tell: Writing fifty-two hundred letters takes a long time.

Show: Writing fifty-two hundred letters took a long time.

And that's still telling, when you think about it. I could show every minute of it and bore you to death. It's narrative summary rather than immediate scene, which is always more tell-y. But it gets the story down the road and gets the writer out of it.

Part of the reason I find present tense a bit icky, I'm sure. That and reading way, way too many screenplays.

Friday, February 12, 2010

For a Good Time, Read...

Go to the bookstore. Find the hardback version of Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna. Turn to page 186. Read page 186-187. The section title is Coyoacán notebook. Cry, because you will never read anything better. Then get yourself together, take the book to the register, buy it, and read the whole thing.

This kind of writing is why many writers don't read while they are writing. Because it is too damn depressing to think how far our writing is from hers.

This is why you must.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Privacy, Please!

I started wondering why people enjoy the Nanowrimo process so much. It isn't natural for most writers to write that much that fast. Not many people get to lie on the couch all day like I do and stare into space until the words come along. Which means most Nano-ers are cramming letters on the page after work or class and around the family and other commitments. Not the most congenial writing environment. Combine that with the other problems Nanowrimo poses and I wonder why people do it. Surely the discipline of a ridiculous deadline can't be the only thing. You're supposed to like writing, folks. If you don't, you're really not going to like being a writer.

No, I think it's the community. Writing is a lonely business. I'm lucky; I'm one of the pure introverts. Most people aren't. Most people don't like closing themselves up all alone for hours and days and weeks on end. And yet that's what writing a novel requires. Part of the fun of a writing group is that it kind of qualifies as writing activity, but you don't have to be alone. So along comes Nanowrimo with its forums and community, and suddenly you're almost writing with other people in the room. People who understand.

There's also a more mysterious thing going on. Writing is a profoundly private act. Go to any talk given by a writer and they will always be asked about their "process." How do they write? Do they outline, do they have a place they go to write, does their family help or hinder, how long does it take, how many drafts? It is artistic sausage-making, yet everyone wants to see how it's made. Yet none of the answers will, in the end, answer the question "How?"

Here's a picture; we haven't had one in a while. It's an unusual locale, the library of the WGAw building in Los Angeles, looking out at the intersection of Fairfax and 3rd. Across the street is the Ross that blew up in the Summer of the Methane Leaks. I took this picture at the start of the first ever 24 Hour Screenwriting Marathon. A bunch of us locked up at noon one Saturday and tried to finish screenplays. I was one of the few who got a rough draft out of it. But a good time was had by all.

Look! Writers writing! I still don't know how they do it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Love That Bad Book!

I talked to a couple of writers' groups and a writers' conference while I was out on my book tour. One of the groups was actually a screenwriting group, since that's a part of my background. I made a couple of predictions early in my talk:

1. Paul Blart, Mall Cop, opening that week, was going to earn more than $100 million total box office.
2. A second release that same weekend was going to make $100 million in its first week and no one there would be able to name it.

I was right about both. Blart minted money and nobody in the audience knew that a long-anticipated expansion to World of Warcraft was due out the next day. Entertainment is a wide, wide field.

I don't know if anybody cared about the point I was making, but I did spark some anger from at least one person. How could I cheerfully anticipate the success of a movie like Paul Blart, Mall Cop? Surely it was just another sign of the hideous degeneration of Hollywood and civilization in general. I mean, honestly, kids these days! Why couldn't I promote something good?

As it happens, this occurred during the run up to awards season and there were some quite good movies in the theaters. So I asked the gentleman in question how many of them he'd seen. Answer? None. But you have them on your Netflix list, right? Right.

So we come around to my point and how this applies to the title of this post. We should love and adore a movie like Paul Blart. We don't ever have to see it, but it cost nothing to make and made a lot of money. It paid for three or four excellent small films that nobody went to see, but put on their Netflix list. Every successful movie should be good news for a film lover. They keep the studios open and the Panaflexes turning.

Now when you see the pile of that terrible, dreadful book on the front table of the chain bookstore, and see the crowds of screaming teenage girls and their creepy mothers outside the premiere of the movie made from that terrible, dreadful book, be of good cheer. Think of the share of the money earned going to good writers for good books. Maybe yours!

I also enjoy thinking that my tax dollars go to the Hubble telescope program. Try it; it helps.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


I realized yesterday that I completed a Nanowrimo, in a way. Writing the second half of the current book took a bit more than the entire month of January, and added 49K to the existing 47K. So pretty close. And here I've always taken a somewhat dim view of the whole "write a novel in a month" scene. Not because I don't think it can be done, or the product won't be worth keeping, but because 50K isn't a novel in most genres and because I think it inspires a lot of bad habits.

First, the 50K problem-- that's about two-thirds of a short novel in most genres. If you write a complete story at 50K, and it's a mainstream adult genre novel, something will be missing. There are lots of folks who talk about adding material to a short novel, but unless you're completely re-conceiving and rewriting, how the heck do you do that? Very hard to do without tossing out your 50K, or at least treating it as some kind of über-outline for your story.

So Nanowrimo leaves you with a bit of a pig in a poke. It's not a novel, and it's not something that can be easily turned into a novel.

Second, the bad habits. Like thinking you can write a good novel quickly. Heck, any novel quickly. Yes, there are folks who can do it. I don't know of any, but I'm sure they are out there. I'm sure that somewhere there is a writer who has successfully written and edited a novel in one month that went on to critical success. But I don't know of that person. I've never heard that story.

My worse concern here is that writing a 50K story gives a new writer a false sense of the structure, pacing, and complexity needed in a novel.

Maybe what the Nanowrimo needs is another month. Take October. Two months should give a writer enough time to produce a rough draft of the proper length, if they hustle. And then they need another six month rewriting festival. But that shouldn't start right after the completion. Put the novel away for a couple of months. Then start on the rewriting. Then you'll need time to get the novel to your trusted readers, get some feedback, do some more rewriting...

Maybe we need a Nanowriyear.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


I'd like to talk a bit about editors, and since it's my blog, I think I shall. I mean freelance editors here, the folks you can hire to do anything from correcting your spelling to reworking the structure of your novel. Most work in the spelling/grammar/punctuation area— the mechanics of language.

A common question writers ask is, should they hire a freelance editor to go over their novel before submitting their work? After all, these folks are expensive. Are they worth it?

Well, here's what you need to do: if you can afford an editor, can you afford ten or twenty times their fee? Because here's what is going to happen: your agent will likely ask for rewrites before submitting your work to editors, and editors absolutely will ask for rewrites, many many rewrites, before publication. Are you going to hire that editor every time you rewrite your manuscript?

Spend the time to master the language before submitting your work. Build up your internal editor. This is part of mastering the craft. And actually, I'm suspicious that if you haven't got sufficient mastery, you aren't reading enough. You should be able to hand over a manuscript with, well, how about one single misspelling.

*&#*$*@& cryotome.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Cool Stuff You Don't Know.

New writers get in trouble sometimes. Heck, they should get in trouble all the time; that way they'll have things to write about when they're old writers. But I digress...

The trouble I'm thinking of today isn't the fun kind. It's the trouble-in-the-writing kind. And this trouble comes right up front. We're talking backstory, folks.

My new book starts with my main character waking up in a hospital. He's English, so that should be "in hospital." He's had a seizure, but I make reference to a previous accident he suffered at some point in the past. The accident becomes something important the reader knows nothing about.

When do I tell the story of the accident? Page 227.

Note that I did not tell the reader the whole story of the accident on page one. Or two. Or five. And in that way it became The Cool Stuff You Don't Know. And this is very important stuff in your book. It obviously functions in every mystery novel, because ordinarily someone is dead right up front, the writer knows who did it, and they do nothing but not tell you for three hundred pages. Very cool!

For some reason, lots of new writers don't buy this idea (unless they're writing mysteries, one hopes). No, these are the new writers of Everything Else. And when you start reading their novels you get, right up front, their main character's life story.

Don't do this. Here's what you do: make whatever is happening right up front as interesting as you can. Go ahead and mention some interesting mystery (the dead person or The Accident), but don't rush to fill us in. Keep us in the immediate scene of the story. Just show us what's happening, make us interested, and we'll get to page 227.

Want to read a writer who is terrific at writing The Cool Stuff You Don't Know? Tana French. She starts one big mystery in her excellent first novel, In the Woods, and you still don't know the answer to it at the end of her second book, The Likeness. And it works! I'm not suggesting this technique will work for most of us, nor am I saying that I'm not hoping that the meta-mystery will be solved in her third novel, but keeping some secrets works very, very well.

So don't tell us everything up front. Think of your reader as a blind date. Your blind date doesn't want to know all the gory details that first night. And you don't want the reader going off to the rest room and never coming back.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I Feel Pretty!

I read a lot of queries for fantasy novels. No, they don't come my way; I read them on various writing forums. I don't know if it's that fantasy writers use such forums more than other writers or if there are just that many more fantasy writers out there these days. I fear it's the latter. No real surprise there, after a decade of LOTR, Potter, and that vampire series. I just read another such query, and had a realization:

Special is hard to do. By Special I mean your main characters who discover they have magic powers, are elves, fey, vampires, werewolves, or whatever the term is that you've invented for them. I see a lot of neologism in this area. Special is Harry Potter, obviously.

Not-Special is easier. Not-Special is Frodo Baggins, an everyhobbit with a big problem to solve. Even better is Sam Gamgee, a hobbit of no advantage whatsoever who gets stuck helping with someone else's problem and makes it his own.

What is wrong with special? Why did I stop reading today's query letter the minute the teenage girl main character discovered that she was secretly Special, which happened in the first sentence? Why could I not even continue long enough to find out what this morning's neologism meant? One reason is that there are thousands of these Special teenage girls out there. Here is who she is:

A quiet girl, bookish, doesn't fit in with the popular crowd, probably has family trouble (missing parent is common). She's probably lower-middle class or poor, and doesn't have the latest cool electronic gadgets. Heck, she has no friends or only one who is an equivalent social pariah; who would she text? Often picked on at school, subject of ridicule, obviously uncomfortable with the relaxed sexual mores of the other students. Appearance-wise, she might wear glasses or be forced to wear hand-me-downs or charity-shop finds that don't fit. She's uncomfortable about her figure, which is quite nice. She'll have one flaw-that-isn't, like green eyes that are a little too big, or set too far apart, or an untamable cascade of chestnut-brown hair. You know, a real dog. If the author is extremely daring, this poor girl might be ten pounds overweight, which in these books means she's 120 lbs. at 5' 4".

And then her weird uncle who has been living in Paris but really was prowling the alleys of Eastern Europe shows up and tells her she's the crown princess of an empire of werewolves, or whatever. He may give her a Special ancient book or amulet just before disappearing or dying mysteriously.

I'm not saying there isn't an audience for this; there obviously is, but it's like the audience for romance novels that are utterly predictable: it's not a challenge, it's very hard to do in an interesting way, and there are a lot of us who wish it would go away.

So how do you make Special work? J.K. Rowling is the master of this. Was Harry Potter the average eleven-year-old when the series started? No, he wasn't. He had magic powers. Heck, he was the Boy Who Lived, Special among the Special. Her trick to Special is this:

Piling On.

Harry wasn't just like every other kid. He was essentially a slave to the Dursleys. Rowling's touch was comedic, but the situation was not. Harry was so far down in life that no reader envied his place in the world and every reader wanted to see the Dursleys get what was coming to them. By the time the first owl showed up we were all rooting for Harry. By the time Hagrid appeared, we were thrilled to hear that Harry was Special.

So there's one trick. If your Special character is specially burdened among the Not-Specials, you increase the chances that we'll cheer when their Specialness is revealed. The other method, which works less well, is to make the Specialness seem like something negative. Finding out you're part werewolf might be bad; I don't know, not my area. Why this doesn't work quite as well is that your readers like the idea of being part werewolf or they wouldn't have bought your book. And they know you're going to make it cool somehow. It's like the romance writer who says "he wasn't her sort of man at all! She hated him!" Yeah, yeah, get in bed.

The more successful approach is usually to go with Not Special. Your main character is not a werewolf. Not even a little bit! She isn't fey, isn't an elf, isn't a vampire, isn't a princess of anywhere in this world or the next. Neither is her weird uncle. He's just weird. She might find a magic ring, only for the love of god, don't make it a magic ring. And when you're creating her, please avoid making her "the novelist at the age of sixteen." Because yeah, I've seen that movie, too.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Writer Paranoia.

Back still out, still on the rocks on the couch. And today I finished the rough draft of the new book. Almost a thousand words longer than the last, but 150 pages shorter because there's so much less dialogue. Final count is 96,420, which leaves much room for slash and burnage.

The paranoia part? The first thing I did when I was happy with the last phrase of the last sentence was to google it and make sure it hadn't been used before. Nope, it's all mine. Well, 80% mine, 20% Rilke's.

You'll see.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Think Big.

Since I have suffered a beer-related back injury and cannot treat it with either beer or a pain reliever of choice due to upcoming blood donation, my only choice for evening activity is blogging and a bit of Top Gear in the background. I am utterly marooned upon the couch.

Sounds like I've been into the beer anyway, don't I? Nope. Just a splash of sludge out of the bottom of the bottling bucket. Big times here on a Monday night.

Ow... I moved.

Anyway, on to the writing bit. I'll probably be finishing the rough draft of my new novel tomorrow. All I'll need to do is peel the rind off it, which shouldn't take too many months. And then you'll get to watch the enjoyable agent-querying process right here on the ol' blog. I have name #1 picked out, but I won't spoil the suspense. The last time I queried agents, it was all snail mail, which meant you had at least a couple of days of that fun lottery-ticket feeling before the rejection arrived. Now we have email. I might fail within moments!

So the desultory rambling leads to this: I'm going after good, old-fashioned commercial publishing. I'd prefer trade paper to hardback this time, since I think that's the future of the physical book. But I want a physical book, and I'd like to clear all those high hurdles on my way there.

I am thinking big. I want all writers to think big. This post was inspired by a new kind of post I've been seeing on writing boards:

"I've just finished editing my novel. I've been thinking about, or do you think e-publishing on the Kindle is a better way to go?"

That, my friends, is thinking small. One step up is the small e-publishers, PODs, etc., and upward from there. My question is, why are writers starting at the bottom? This is where the ego-protective lies along the lines of "agents don't read queries" and "nobody publishes unknown writers" do their damage. It's nonsense. Big agents sign and big publishers publish unknowns all the time.

So think big. Shoot for the top. Go for your dream agent. Run at that high hurdle.

I used to be pretty good at the hurdles. When I had a spine.