Although it would be nice, I’m not writing this from Dalmatia. However, in many ways, I may as well be. Most of my manuscript takes place on or around islands on the Dalmatian coast. Ironically, I haven’t visited this part of the world in a decade, so I’m constantly trying to conjure up the landscape to help with writing the setting.
About ten years ago I was working on a nonfiction book set in Croatia. I thought a couple of weeks spent over there would be helpful. Not only would I be able to visit family, I would also have hours of unobstructed writing time. I could immerse myself and the writing in a specific place.
Lots of writing did get done. I’d wake up in the morning and head over to the Kalilarga, Zadar’s main thoroughfare. I’d sit in a café and write fiction that had nothing to do with the project I was writing at the time. Somehow, being in the place I wanted to write about proved to be too overpowering. Too real. There was so much of it surrounding me. What to focus on?
I suppose what Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast is true: “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.”
The stories I’m currently working with are tricky from a setting point of view. Even though the places are real locations, the stories are set in the past. Times have changed, and Dalmatia has changed even more. For example, twenty years ago there weren’t any cars on the central coast islands I visited. Today there are paved roads, with all types of cars roaming about. Plus pollution and noise. Since all of the stories are set 20-60 years ago, I need to capture a place of the past.
Over the years, I’ve picked up tips in workshops or in books. Here are a couple of my favorite writing exercises that help me conjure up the Dalmatian setting when I need help:
1. Tree Map: Make a tree map with five branches or sections of a piece of paper. Label each “branch” or section with a sense (sight, touch, smell, sound, taste). Imagine the setting. Recall and chart as many details as possible under each sense.
2. Active Imagination: Close your eyes, relax, take a couple of deep breaths. Imagine you’re in the setting. Spend some time there. Take in the sights, focus in on what you feel, what is happening around you, what you see. Open your eyes and write about it. Some people prefer to quickly write as they’re imagining the place with their eyes open. I’ve never been able to coordinate all of that, but it’s worth a whirl. Warning: if one is tired and lacking caffeine, it’s possible to doze off. Be careful not to stay in your locale of choice for too long!
3. Timed Talk: Get a friendly ear to listen to you. Set a time limit (usually 5 minutes is enough). Talk about the story setting until time runs out. You can talk about anything concerning your setting. Your friend can only listen. Even if there’s a lull, you’ll eventually remember a sight or a sound and start talking again. You may even remember (or create, if it is a fictional place) a detail you had forgotten.
This week we have been examining banned and challenged pieces of literature that continue to face attempted censorship. Flavorwire compiled a list of famous books that most people would be surprised to find were censored. The article reads:
Most fans of literature and free speech will be well aware that censorship (or at least attempted censorship) is alive and well in the United States. Recently, a parent objected to the un-expurgated version of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, calling her descriptions of her budding sexuality “pornographic.” This person is rather behind the times — those passages were originally cut because of the chance that they might offend, but reinstated later on. But Frank isn’t the only author whose raciest passages were cut before publication.
PEN Center USA's Director of Programs and Events Michelle Meyering joined KCRW to discuss banned books and Forbidden Fruit, a showcase and reading featuring famously challenged titles. You can listen to the interview here.
For more information about Forbidden Fruit: A Banned Literature Showcase, please visit the Forbidden Fruit official event page.
I tend to cringe at formulas, probably because I was never any good at math or chemistry. If I studied hard enough before a test, I might do okay. But in due time, I’d forget everything. So it stands to reason that when it comes to writing fiction, I tend to reject anything that smacks of formula on principle.
On the one hand, this is good. No one wants his or her work to feel “formulaic.” On the other, rejecting form altogether is problematic and rarely works. For my taste, experimental writing is only engaging when done really well. And even then, you’d probably find some form if you looked hard enough.
But what about using a formula to plan a piece of work before you’ve even begun?
For some work this is totally necessary, like architecture, set design, or rocket-building. But in writing, as well as other art forms, you can begin with no idea of where the piece will be going and hope to find your way along the way.
A lot of writers swear by this. Others outline. The degree of outlining can vary. Some might do brief, broad outlines, just so they know more or less where they might be going. They might even stop the outline before the end, so that at least something can surprise them along the way. Others will outline everything, knowing exactly where they’re headed. Apparently, J.K. Rowling did this with the entire Harry Potter series.
All well and good, but I’m no J.K. Rowling, nor do I want to be– except for the number of books she has sold of course. I still have issues with the outline because I fear it would take the fun out of writing the first draft, the sense of discovery. I’m reminded of the times I wrote treatments for screenplays, an insipidly dull and dry process (which, apparently, few read anymore, anyway).
Many of my favorite writers have claimed not to outline: George Saunders and Aimee Bender come to mind, and I think it shows. Most of their stories feel intuitive and so strange that I have a hard time imagining them plotting everything out. Same with now-classic short-story writers who helped advanced the form, like Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, Lydia Davis, and Denis Johnson, who authored my still-favorite linked-story collection, Jesus’ Son. Most of their work does not follow a well-worn path, and, though I’m sure they were all worked on and polished over long periods of time, the best ones retain an immediacy: the sense that the narrator is telling the story in the moment, just opening it up and letting it fly. The trick is to do the work, but not feel the work in the final product.
I’ve only vaguely considered form with some pieces, and probably wasted some time because of it. For my current collection, I’ve re-written stories several times over, without ever considering some of the basic story elements. Once I had characters and an interesting premise, I’d work more at improving the writing itself – finding the freshest language, trimming the fat, making the sentences sing. Yet, all of that time can be wasteful if the basic story falls flat, as happens if I haven’t considered some of the essential story components, like what the character thinks they want, how this may or may not be what they need, how they try to get it, the issue that holds them back, etc.
I think my ideal formula is this: write a first draft with no outline. Then once I’ve got a vague notion of where the draft could go based on that, answer some of these basic questions and, yes, even write a short outline detailing how the story might get from a to b to c.
The only aspect that troubles me, as summarized in the book Wired for Story that I’ve been reading, is the final piece of the puzzle: what does the story have to say about human nature? For me, this treads a bit too closely to a moral, or to over-simplification. That’s why I usually use several thousand words per story. Because, like most things that matter in life, it can’t be summed up in thirty or less!
On the publication of his collection This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, talks about how he writes novels and short stories and the inspiration behind them.
I know they aren’t cool, and I know a lot of writers hate them, but I'll admit it: I love writing prompts.
I can understand why many literary folk roll their eyes at them. Why would you want someone to tell you when and what to write about?
There are two main reasons that I dance a little on the inside when given a good writing exercise. The first is their playful nature. A prompt is a game of sorts. You take an idea that someone's handing you– an interesting scenario or character trait, an image or conflict– and tinker with it. You emerge with a creation born of the original idea, but now different, on the other end. The transformation process– like dress-up, or performing a play, or pulling a prank– is, inherently, fun.
Secondly, an exercise asks something specific and objective of a writer. It's pre-defined: this is the task that must be accomplished; this is the place at which to begin; this is the character whom you follow; this is the amount of time or space you have to write. In a field where we so often dwell in subjectivity, it's a nice variation to latch onto something definitive and factual. At the same time, a prompt can evolve into an infinite number of stories. Possibilities are simultaneously limited and boundless in such a way that, perhaps, frees one from regular habits and limitations, while still applying pressure to the writing. I believe that pressure and play are healthy for the imagination, and exercises ask both of a writer.
Gathered from my some of favorite craft books, here are a few writing prompts. I'm going to do some this week and, if anyone wants to be un-cool and do some too, I'd love to share and compare notes!
1. The Non-Apology: Write an exchange that begins "I'm sorry, but..." Have the other character answer and then in the ensuing back-and-forth reveal the circumstances that got them into this situation. --from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway
2. Write about something you know absolutely nothing about. Make all of it up. --from 642 Things to Write About, by the San Francisco Writers' Grotto
3. To learn more about your character, write down two lists: one of the sins of omission (the things the character didn't do) and one of the sins of commission (what the character did do) that are on his or her conscience. --from Method and Madness: The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante
4. Write down ten things about yourself that are quantifiable in some way (i.e., can be expressed with numbers). --from Method and Madness: The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante
5. Imagine a moment just after some major historical event... It may be that these people have no idea what has just happened. --from The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction, by Brian Kitely
6. Write a short story on a three-by-five card or the back of a postcard. Notice that if you're going to manage a conflict, crisis and resolution in this small space, you'll have to introduce the conflict immediately. --from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway
7. Write a scene in which two people leave believing opposite things are true. --from 642 Things to Write About, by the San Francisco Writers' Grotto
8. Think about a time when you lost something and were inexplicably upset about it. That is, the emotion was out of proportion with the thing lost. Write the story, concentrating on concrete details and immersing the reader in the experience rather than summarizing it. --from Method and Madness: The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante
9. Write down three pieces of dialogue that you hear from three different conversations. Put those bits into the same conversation. Take it from there. --from 642 Things to Write About, by the San Francisco Writers' Grotto
10. For one of your stories, write three different endings, each one showing, in some way, how your main character has been changed by the action in the story. Think about what is resolved and what is left unresolved with each ending. Then ask yourself what really need to happen, emotionally, to your character by the end. --from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway
I have been cutting a lot from the stories in my collection. I feel the need to trim the stories to make them tighter. In my mid-project review notes, advisor Rob Roberge encouraged me to cut 10-12 pages from a forty-page story. He said, “Trying to cut 20-25% is a great exercise in editing.” I’ve been experimenting with this challenge. The result is that the writing is getting tighter. However, the original parts aren’t a waste.
The deleted parts helped me understand the characters. As a result, these characters are more complete. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote “This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”
This cutting is also motivated by a desire to make the voice of the story more consistent. In early drafts it’s easy to insert a phrase or sentence that isn’t truly the character or narrator speaking but the writer. I’ve been analyzing stories. I’ve heard writers say that it helps to put a story aside for a couple of weeks or a month before revising. I find the time off from a piece helps in the long run. I have fresh eyes when coming back to it. During these rereadings I have read parts that I just flat out don’t like anymore. Parts that don’t even seem to match up with the rest of the story. When I read sentences that make me cringe, I know they need to be cut.
Sometimes I comb through a story for a specific purpose. In the first stories I wrote for the collection I tended to throw out exclamation points. I’m now getting rid of exclamation points. Instructor Antoine Wilson quoted his former writing teacher Frank Conroy as saying you get one per story. And as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
Revision is an ongoing process. I was interested in what Jerome Stern had to say about revision in Making Shapely Fiction. He said that “A story grows with each draft, finding itself, developing its textures, and eliminating what’s extraneous. Revision is integral to the creative process. It is the work’s discovery of itself.” That’s the beautiful part about the process. With each draft we have a chance to reassess, reflect, and attempt, in our flawed, human way, to bring the character’s story to life.
Have you ever noticed the correlation between Louis C.K.'s humor and J.D. Salinger's writing style? Minh Le over at Book Riot did. He writes, "The other day I was flipping through Catcher in the Rye, and after a few pages I realized that the narrator in my head was Louis C.K. Which, as I kept reading, turned out to be kind of perfect."
Here are some examples:
Sad to say, but it seems I was not born a genius. At least, not according to my accomplishments thus far. Whether it’s my genes, upbringing, motivation, discipline, or some kind of mystical selection process, I have not been bestowed with a brilliant mind or the kind of prodigious talent that made Mozart begin composing at the age of five, Michael Jackson a super-star by 10, and Bob Dylan write some of his best songs before he hit 25.
This begs the question: not being a genius, should I bother? Does the world need more decent writers when it already has so many great ones?
According to the book Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, the answer is a definitive yes, especially if I want the human race to survive. Stories are what ignites the brain, teaches it how to function and live. Essentially, without stories, the human race would be doomed.
Ms. Cron offers helpful advice for writers based on how the brain processes stories and how that can tell us a lot about what makes a story successful. She’s a proponent of the traditional narrative: the protagonist with a definable goal, a clear intention behind it, vast obstacles in the way, building and leading to a climax and a resolution. Oh, and all of it should say something about the human condition.
She also argues that the vast majority of successful writers aren’t genius-like rule-breakers forging new literary paths like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Djuna Barnes, etc. Writers shouldn’t be worrying about striving for genius, we should be worrying about telling a good story, which can be hard enough as it is. If we were geniuses like them, she argues, “we’d long have since been published, and universities would offer graduate seminars on our work.”
I could quibble with her investigation of this phenomenon; she sums up their genius as something “in their DNA,” which seems a little simplistic given the fact that the book is about brain science. And I don’t think it’s wrong to want to emulate some great writers, to strive for new ways of telling stories. Though in truth, even experimental writing often follows some of the basic rules of narrative storytelling.
Earlier in the book she explains why The DaVinci Code, horribly written as it is, sold millions of copies. It was the story that made people want to keep flipping pages. While this may be true, anyone who really cares about writing wants it all to shine from the sentence level to the larger mechanics of the plot. Flouting the traditional story conventions just to be different can lead to messy, non-specific, and non-compelling writing. But, to a discerning reader, so can clinging to them too tightly. Smart readers don’t want to feel they’re being manipulated by formula. They want to lose themselves in the story, and not think about the form at all.
More attractive and perhaps accessible than the geniuses are the writers who toil for years, and who only improve over time. The New Yorker did a study a few years back found that there was no definitive correlation between writer’s ages and their most highly regarded work. For every Rimbaud, who quit at 20, there’s a Dostoevsky, who wrote his magnum opus The Brothers Karamazov on his deathbed. Of course, he was exiled to a Siberian work camp for many years, so he had a pretty good excuse as to why his 30s weren’t so productive. Better, I guess, than “too much partying.”
On today's Writers' Reel George Saunders talks about what he thinks produces bad writing.
"The reader is a person you need to charm, you better bring your good shit…because they don't have time to wait around for you to work through your Hemingway phase."
As a runner, a writer, and mostly as a human being, I have been thinking about the tragedies in Boston. I have been thinking about the families who lost loved ones and the individuals who have been injured. I have been thinking about the people who have witnessed the bombings and their aftermath, who, perhaps, will be forever changed. I have been thinking about all of the good people who gathered last Monday in Boston to cheer for the runners. I've also been thinking about the joy of running and, more specifically, the sweetness of a marathon.
Running, like writing, is mostly a solitary sport. But on marathon day, it's as if the whole world is running with and cheering for you. Everything is vibrant and the world pulses– brightly, generously.
In a piece written in The New Yorker last Monday, shortly after the explosions, author Susan Orlean reflects on her New York City Marathon experience and the spirit of a marathon in a big city, characterizing it as "an exceptional, joyous moment, when [people] come together in the sweetest way, helping each other fly." (Source)
Also in The New Yorker, Dan Chiasson offers "A Poem for Boston," citing a 14th-century poem by Piers Plowman. He also reflects on the tradition of the marathon as a display of human endurance, alluding to the legendary origin of the 26.2-mile distance. Upon finishing, the first runner supposedly died of exhaustion. Chiasson writes, "Everyone is defying, in one way or another, mortality, the actual finish line whose figurative embodiment they plan to cross." (Source)
As I write this, the words “revision,” “reimagining,” and “faith” continue to surface in my mind. I wish we could revise what happened, and reimagine a new space in which the tragedy was averted. Then there's faith. Prior to the explosions, I'd been thinking about how making art demonstrates a belief that it is possible to uncover the shape of something meaningful, something that echoes the heart, even if the world seems incoherent. Now, in the aftermath of Boston, the necessity of unearthing and articulating emotional truths seems all the more poignant. Lastly, runners—last week's runners; next year's runners; runners every day, on every road, between now and then—are demonstrating faith that great distances can and will be covered, one stride at a time.