I've discovered that it's often difficult for me to describe a work-in-progress in any way that satisfies me.
I've heard that it takes an hour to write an hour-long speech, two hours to write a two-hour speech, and three hours to write a ten-minute speech. One has to really know what one wants to say in order to make it concise.
For a very long time, I have struggled with how to articulate what my novel-in-progress is about. As part of the Mark Program, we've been asked to write and revise log lines and brief synopses of our manuscripts. (Natali and Eric are writing story collections, and I'm writing a novel.) In large part because of the Mark, I have a much surer sense of how to articulate what my novel is about, in terms of both plot and thematic concerns.
Oftentimes, I struggle to answer the related question of where my novel-in-progress comes from. How much is true--born of real life--and how much is fabricated? I like the response of my former teacher, Pam Houston, who says that everything she writes--regardless of its classification as either fiction or non-fiction--ends up containing about 82% truth. In another variation, Mark instructor Antoine Wilson likens life to a lemon and the fiction that emerges from it to the zest. I've been extending the food metaphor: If life is a cookie, then stories are the chocolate chips. You nibble out the bits of life that catch your breath--the distinctive emotional truths--and they, I believe, are what make a work of fiction.
I don't know where I'm coming in with my truth percentage but I do know that, through every hour that I sit with manuscript, I am discovering with greater intimacy what my novel is about. I am learning the rhythms of my character Lillian's heart, I am learning about the overarching obsessions of the manuscript and, this weekend, I also, perhaps not by chance, ate many chocolate chip cookies.
At workshop a couple of nights ago, Antoine asked us if we were planning extra time for revisions before the final review. The manuscripts are due at the end of this month. There’s just one more workshop, early next week. The weekends will have to be marathon writing sessions. Other than that, I don’t have large blocks of time I can allocate to revisions. The only solutions I can think of are to block off shorter segments throughout the day and to set writing dates. Writing dates are something I learned about from Mae, an Emerging Voices fellow.
We have now been doing writing dates for close to three years. It started when our kids were still toddlers. I was so sleep-deprived in those days that it was hard to start writing again on a consistent basis. Writing dates were something that Mae had heard of from a friend who learned about it during an MFA program. There’s not much to the notion, but there is a method.
Once you have a partner, you need to decide on the logistics of the writing date. Mae and I chose to devote a forty-minute block of time for one evening every week. It’s important to always stick to the same day and the same beginning and end time. In this way, a habit is formed and you always know that no matter what is happening in your daily life, that chunk of time awaits your writing life.
The next component of a successful writing date is to set up a routine as to who is the initiator and who is the time-keeper. The initiator is the person who calls at the agreed-upon time. During this call, it’s important to exchange writing goals for the block of time you’re about to begin. Even if you plan on spending the time doing a writing prompt, it needs to be stated. I’ve found that verbally committing to an activity keeps me focused and accountable. It’s less tempting to get side-tracked by a different story or to switch from, say, drafting to revising.
The time-keeper is the one who (obviously) times the writing session and then calls the other writer at the end. During the closing call, it’s imperative to be honest about how it went. There are some days that are filled with fabulous focus and the writing goal is achieved. There are other times, when the writing didn’t go as well; maybe it was like walking through molasses. Either way, it’s all part of the process and that’s all right.
Writing dates transformed my writing life. They’re instrumental to building momentum. There’s something about being accountable to another writer that makes a person rise to the occasion—even if they’re sleep-deprived.
From The Paris Review:
In 1963, a sixteen-year-old San Diego high school student named Bruce McAllister sent a four-question mimeographed survey to 150 well-known authors of literary, commercial, and science fiction. Did they consciously plant symbols in their work? he asked. Who noticed symbols appearing from their subconscious, and who saw them arrive in their text, unbidden, created in the minds of their readers? When this happened, did the authors mind?
The pages here feature a number of the surveys in facsimile: Jack Kerouac, Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer. Each responder offers a unique take on the issue itself—symbolism in literature—as well as on handling a sixteen-year-old aspirant approaching writers as masters of their craft.
The first decision a writer has to make is “who exactly is telling this story?” And, in many ways, the entire book becomes about answering this question. Since the traditional narrator, 3rd person omniscient, has largely fallen out of favor in modern literature, close-third or first-person narration has become the new standard, meaning we’re seeing the story through the eyes of our main character. Which also means the person telling the story is the story that the story is about. Get it?
Not only that, but also many authors employ an alter-ego narrator, meaning they’re writing versions of themselves, making a conscious effort to mirror their own lives, to explore real events or people through the filter of fiction.
In my alter-ego explorations, I’ve discovered one of the pitfalls tends to be my tendency to obscure the very things that I should be illuminating, hiding from a deeper truth that I have a hard time facing about myself. Such are the hazards of navel-gazing, I suppose, but it’s a well-worn path many writers I admire have taken and, now that I’ve started, I’m not sure I can go back.
Some writers will purposely alter their alter-egos, creating a parallel life, at least on paper. Willa Cather in My Antonia uses a male alter-ego, perhaps as a way to connect closer to the truth of her life as a lesbian at a time when to write honestly about it would have been too controversial. John Updike’s Rabbit shares a lot of Updike’s personal history, but becomes a used car salesman, an exploration of “What would happen if…?”
Another method is to employ an alter-ego as a secondary character, such as Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout, who appears in several books and whose biography changes throughout each one.
And then there are alter-egos that sit so closely to the writer, it’s hard to identify them outside of it, such as Bukowski’s Chinaski or Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, whose descent into madness closely mirrors Plath’s own.
A big decision writers have to make about their alter-egos from the get-go is whether or not to make them writers. On the one hand, it feels more truthful, like, all right, this narrator isn’t bullshitting us, he’s admitting to being a writer, which, duh, he must be, since we’re reading his book. On the other, it’s become a cliché, and how interesting is it to read about someone who spends most of their time writing?
Some get around this by portraying the alter-ego in their formative phase, showing what inspired them to become writers. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby is one famous example of this, as well as Sal Paradise in On The Road. Another tactic is to employ a writer alter-ego who’s a lot less successful and prolific than the writer himself, like Updike’s other alter-ego Henry Bech.
In the end, it comes back to story and which method returns the greatest result. An author’s alter-ego can still tell a story that has little to do with writing, leaving their writer-selves as more of a background element. In Junot Diaz’s recent collection, the final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” is, as it states, mostly about love and the effects of a breakup. In the end, a friend suggests the narrator should write “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” and it becomes clear that, well, yes, he has, and we just read it.
I’m not sure the story needed that self-reference, but it is about the only redemption the character gets. He’s fucked up his whole life, and it’s still a bit of a mess in the end, but at least he got a book out of it…
"If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything." - David Foster Wallace
Here's an interview with David Foster Wallace by Leonard Lopate recorded on March 4, 1996. In it, Wallace discusses perfectionism, receiving (and neglecting) constructive lessons, and ambition.
When I was in middle school, my mom and I were part of a mother-daughter book club. I haven't thought of this club for years and I don't remember a ton of details, except that we gathered on Saturday afternoons and talked about books like The Golden Compass and Farewell to Manzanar with other girls my age and their mothers. We always had trouble settling on what book to read next and I remember feeling, for the first time, surprised at how differently people could interpret the same book.
In high school, I took a literature course at UC Berkeley which covered the history of the novel from its inception to present day. Some of the texts were dry and difficult to get through. But from this experience my mom taught me to take a step back and appreciate what it is that I'm getting to do. She has taught me to recognize the fact that, even when reading or writing feels like work--when it's stressful, or not going well, or I'm late for a deadline--it's a wonderful thing to pour one's time and energy into endeavors one loves.
Through their examples, both my parents have taught me a good deal of things related to reading. They've taught me not to worry if a book gets tattered, that it's preferable that a book be well-read rather than pristine. They've taught me to give and accept recommendations. They've taught me that the best sort of vacation involves a suitcase filled with at least five novels. And, through shared experiences, they've taught me that it's strangely fun to be around other people, reading.
In the spirit of Mother's Day, I am especially grateful to my mother for showing me, through her example, that reading is a pleasure and a privilege. Now that is the ultimate way to show, don't tell.
This has been a busy year. Life is like that: you can’t schedule the unforeseeable. Bathrooms will flood, new bosses will pop up, people will die, and loved ones will need help.
In the past, all of the above have derailed me from writing for days, weeks, even months. Being in The Mark Program has helped me maintain an intense focus. Getting sidetracked, even if by a very real issue, isn’t feasible. I figured out ways to get writing done even if a different part of my life was presenting time and energy demands. Enter the value of momentum.
I’ve heard people speak of momentum, even had glimpses of the power of momentum in the past. However, being in The Mark Program is sort of like being in a pressure cooker. It never lets up; there’s always a piece of the manuscript that needs to be written, revised, organized, revised, pondered, revised, or researched. After all, it is a manuscript-polishing program. What has worked during this process is coming back to the project on a nightly basis, no matter what is happening.
Momentum is a special energy that can’t be found, it just builds, day after day, until it takes on a life of its own. Since I’m constantly in contact with the characters, my mind continues to work on the book even after I have left the notebook or computer screen. Ideas or solutions to challenges I’m facing on the page come to me at odd times like when I’m inching along Interstate 110 or slicing up a tomato for a salad.
Here are a couple of momentum-builders that I’ve found helpful:
--Same bat time, same bat channel: setting a block of writing time aside at or around the same time each day allows the act of writing to become a habit. Even if an emergency cuts into the time, get in as much time as possible. Even thirty minutes, if done daily, helps.
--Small goals, to-do list style: make a list of writing goals that need to be done before the end of the week, or by end of the month. Examples: Write a new scene for a story, find a new title, rewrite the ending of a story, or check dialogue tags on pages X through Y. Some sort of immediate target date is essential. Crossing out the accomplished goals is also motivating.
--If it’s late in the day and you’re ready to call it a writing-free day, don’t. Set the timer for ten or fifteen minutes, then write while standing. Make yourself write towards your project, even if you think it’s shit and you’re exhausted. Sometimes good things will still come. Regardless, at least you’re connecting with your creative flow.
--When stuck, think of the story’s issues while going through the nighttime routine. Right before going to sleep, invite the mind to solve the problem while sleeping. In the morning, an inkling of how to proceed might be present.
Writing, like life, can be unpredictable. Trial and error is usually the rule instead of the exception when trying to build momentum. Each person is unique. And in the end, we are all human, doing the best that we can, under the circumstances we face. Allow that effort to count.
It's easy to feel delegitimized after your manuscript gets declined by a publisher. There are, however, innumerable factors that go in to a publisher's decision on what to print and what to deny. To put it into perspective, here's a list of famous titles, compiled from Michael Larsen's book Literary Agents, that went on to exceed the foresight of a publishing house's expectations.
· The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck was returned fourteen times, but it went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
· Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead was rejected twelve times.
· Twenty publishers felt that Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull was for the birds.
· The first title of Catch-22 was Catch-18, but Simon and Schuster planned to publish it during the same season that Doubleday was bringing out Mila 18 by Leon Uris. When Doubleday complained, Joseph Heller changed the title. Why 22? Because Simon and Schuster was the 22nd publisher to read it. Catch-22 has become part of the language and has sold more than 10 million copies.
· Mary Higgins Clark was rejected forty times before selling her first story. One editor wrote: "Your story is light, slight, and trite." More than 30 million copies of her books are now in print.
· Before he wrote Roots, Alex Haley had received 200 rejections.
· Robert Persig's classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, couldn't get started at 121 houses.
· John Grisham's first novel, A Time to Kill, was declined by fifteen publishers and some thirty agents. His novels have more than 60 million copies in print.
· Thirty-three publishers couldn't digest Chicken Soup for the Soul, compiled by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, before it became a huge best-seller and spawned a series.
· The Baltimore Sun hailed Naked in Deccan as "a classic" after it had been rejected over seven years by 375 publishers.
· Zelda wouldn't marry F. Scott Fitzgerald until he sold a story. He papered his bedroom walls with rejection slips before he won her hand.
· Dr. Seuss's first book was rejected twenty-four times. The sales of his children's books have soared to 100 million.
· Louis L'Amour received 200 rejections before he sold his first novel. During the last forty years, Bantam has shipped nearly 200 million of his 112 books, making him their biggest selling author.
· British writer John Creasy received 774 rejections before selling his first story. He went onto write 564 books, using fourteen names.
I fell in love with fiction via fantasy and sci-fi. The first stories I wrote were all in that realm. Judy Blume showed me there was another kind of writing possible, but it wasn’t until later, in high school, discovering Salinger and Fitzgerald and Kerouac, that I realized it was possible to write honestly about life and still tell a great story. After writing many traditional stories, I experimented and wrote one based on a day in my life, an average, unextraordinary day in which nothing at all spectacular happened. My thought was why can’t the everyday work as a story? I turned it in, and the next day, keeping me after class, my teacher asked me: “Were you stoned when you wrote this?”
I laughed. “Not at all,” I said, and tried to explain what I was going for, but she was mystified. Although I’m sure my banal story about goofing around with friends and eating a quiet dinner with my family was no masterpiece, I recall being proud that my experiment could cause such an extreme reaction, and, in that regard, I’d succeeded.
Undaunted, I kept trying to capture life on the page. During my senior year, I wrote several stories about several bizarre episodes I recalled from junior high. I also took a Latin American Literature class, and read some great stories by Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, and the classic, surrealist novella Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo. Many of these stories contained elements of “magic realism,” a blending of the real and the unreal, and I saw how it was possible to be grounded in reality, but not shackled to it.
In almost every workshop I’ve been in, there have been “magic-realist” haters. Perhaps the genre has taken a few hits through the years, especially from feel-good “chick-lit” like Practical Magic, or “inspirational” parables like The Alchemist and The Celestine Prophecy that cheapen the form.
Isabel Allende, a magical realist herself who’s taken her share of criticism, has been quoted as saying: "The problem with fiction is that it must seem credible, while reality seldom is."
I’m not sure if the “problem” she’s complaining about is that people expect fiction to be credible even though they don’t expect the same of reality, or if she’s saying the problem of writing fiction is that everything, even the unreal, must seem plausible, i.e., operate according to its own set of rules. Either way, she’s probably right.
In general, this notion of realist drama is indicative of a lot of American literature, whereas some other countries tend toward a more playful, fabulist view. Perhaps our tradition stems from the practical, no-nonsense view of life that predominates our culture, whereas others still value dreams and question the very nature of reality itself.
I like it when a book transports me out of the everyday. Just as I like it when I can achieve that sensation in life. In workshops, I’ve let myself be prodded towards writing more realistic material, and part of me worries I’m trying to please others before myself. But I’m also viewing it as a experiment/good practice: to write as realistic and comprehensive as possible, to get it all down on paper, and then edit the shit out of it later.
It’s a bit like a musician practicing scales. The most out-there free jazz players learned all the rules before they were able to break them. Perhaps it’s the same with writing. I’m still getting it down, and once I’m closer, maybe I’ll find the magic in those spaces, where it’s been hiding all along.
In this new RSA Animate, renowned experimental psychologist Steven Pinker shows us how the mind turns the finite building blocks of language into infinite meanings. Taken from the RSA's free public events programme www.thersa.org/events.