Monday, April 27, 2009

On 26 Things I Learned about Writing at the Muse and the Marketplace

This weekend I attended Grub Street Writer’s annual writers’ conference in Boston, “The Muse Muse and the Marketplace.” In addition to receiving one-on-one feedback from an agent, I attended four sessions on various aspects of writing (Elinor Lipman, Bret Anthony Johnston) and getting published (Lisa Genova, a panel of agents) and a luncheon with keynote speaker, Ann Patchett (she was witty and informative!). In reviewing my notes when I got home rather than just putting them away, I gleaned the following advice/observations, organized by general topic. I like to think I was practicing some of these, but it never hurts to be reminded. Many of these came with illustrations.

On point of view (POV):
1. Point of view all comes down to selection of events and selection of details.
2. To pull off first person central POV (as opposed to peripheral), you need a distinctive and original voice. First person central is deceptively easy. “How the story is told is as important as the story itself. If anyone else tells it, they will get it wrong.”
3. For every one thing a character notices about another character, we should learn three things about the character doing the observing.
4. When you put one character in the position where they know more than another character, you create tension.

On sharpening your writing:
5. Establish a sense of your main character on page one. You want people to care.
6. Agents are looking for an excuse to stop reading; don’t include details/incidents early that make them question your logic, your research, etc.
7. Don’t write about the weather or the sky unless it’s relevant to your story.
8. Use salient details to move the story along or help us see a person or setting.
9. Sometimes there is no substitute for a well-placed adverb.
10. Some ambiguity in story endings is okay—either this or that happened. Use an epilogue if you need to wrap things up. But don’t have a character stare out into the abyss.
11. Make the reader an equal partner—don’t keep them guessing about what is happened, has happened, don’t trick them.
12. Save your “cuts.”

On dialogue:
13. Watch putting too much exposition in your dialogue.
14. Oscar Wilde said, “The essence of dialogue is interruption.”
15. When you use the word “said” or “says” in your dialogue tags, they disappear as compared with other synonyms (e.g. replied, affirmed, concurred, etc.)
16. Use said or says frequently to avoid confusion about who is speaking.
17. It sounds phony to use a person’s name in dialogue.
18. Some words are inherently funnier than others, so be mindful of the effect you are creating—e.g. haddock vs. filet of sole.
19. Emotions can be conveyed by the quality of the speech, not just the content (e.g. when happy, use run on sentences).

On writing in general:
20. Don’t count on your muse to appear! Be disciplined about your writing; this is a job.
21. Don’t keep beating a dead horse—be ready to dump your project if it isn’t working.
22. Remember that research is where we go to hide when we don’t want to work.

On publishing:
23. Make sure your book fits into a genre, or your book may be difficult to sell.
24. Network and use any referrals you can as you seek an agent, as referrals will more likely lead to an agent reading your work.
25. Self-publishing is not the kiss-of-death it was even a year ago, thanks to the success of originally self-published books, Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader and Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, but you will need a good hook (e.g. a place, a topic).
26. Prior to publishing, put excerpts, FAQs, readers’ guides on your website, design a cover.

Not too shabby for one day of my time. Thanks, Grub Street!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On the Great Literary Fiction Debate, or Are Some Writers Bamboozling Us?

Once again, I’ve gotten myself in a swivet about literary fiction. To set the record straight, I tend to read what is called literary fiction more than “genre fiction.” Basically, I like novels that are well-written, with interesting, distinctive characters who grow and change, rich dialogue, and engrossing story lines. I enjoy being taken to places or times with which I may be less familiar, but I equally I am happy to indulge in a story to which I can relate. If a so-called genre fiction book fits those criteria, I’m in. And as you may have learned, I am not above reading the odd page turner where all these elements may not be present. Perhaps it is my investment in literary fiction that is causing my current state of rage. In my mind, a few writers, including several who have been showered with awards and critical acclaim, are being allowed to get away with a con job because on the surface their writing sounds so good—the literary equivalent of the emperor having no clothes (and I am not claiming this as an original thought.)

First, let’s deal with a couple of definitions. Wikipedia says: “Literary fiction is a term that has come into common usage since around 1970, principally to distinguish serious fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction (i.e. paraliterature). In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the page-turner) focuses more on narrative and plot….. Literary fiction is generally characterized as distinctive based on its content and style ("literariness", the concern to be "writerly"). The term literary fiction is considered hard to define very precisely but is commonly associated with the criteria used in literary awards…”

Nathan Bransford in his blog entry entitled “What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?”(February 26, 2007) believes that in commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface (in the external world, where things happen) and “in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface, in the minds and hearts of the characters. Things may happen on the surface, but what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them.”

So far, so good. So why am I feeling bamboozled? I recently went to a reading/discussion by a well-received literary fiction author (who will remain nameless) presenting her latest book. I had heard of her but confess I hadn’t read any of her books. The first warning light flashed as she explained, laughing, that this one--a very short, light-hearted book--had more of a plot than her previous award winning books (Read—My serious books do not need plot.)

Later that night as I began to read my new purchase, in short succession I encountered no fewer than six characteristics of certain so-called literary fiction works that make me twitch:

1) Switching of point of view mid-paragraph. Unless skillfully done, this sudden turnabout can be very confusing. It suggests either that the writer felt they were above normal writing conventions, or the editors were afraid to suggest any changes.
2) Characters indistinguishable by their dialogue, no matter what the background or personality of the character.
3) Interminable chunks of dialogue using expressions and words that even highly intelligent people don’t use. Few of us are that clever as we speak off the cuff.
4) Internal dialogue that feels implausible for a given character, such as deep insight from a character who is unlikely to have those kinds of insights.
5) Little rationale for why two characters may become involved in each others’ lives.
6) Frequent use of vocabulary that I have to look up in the dictionary, and I pride myself in having a reasonably good vocabulary. It feels like showing off.

As any good sleuth, I searched for clues that I was not crazy or uncultured and uncovered a scathing diatribe against certain forms of literary fiction by BR Myers (The Atlantic, July/August 2001), entitled “A Reader’s Manifesto.” Here are a few of Myers zingers that resonated.

“Many readers today expect literary language to be so remote from normal speech as to be routinely incomprehensible.”
“The critics' admiration for [Annie] Proulx reflects a growing consensus that the best prose is that which yields the greatest number of standout sentences, regardless of whether or not they fit the context.”
“A thriller must thrill or it is worthless; this is as true now as it ever was. Today's ‘literary’ novel, on the other hand, need only evince a few quotable passages to be guaranteed at least a lukewarm review.”
“…what unites these writers and separates them from the rest of the "literary" camp is the determinedly slow tempo of their prose.” The article is filled with examples of sometimes nonsensical language.

Myers claim is that the reviewers aren’t looking at the work as a whole, but rather allow themselves to be smitten by particular images or sentences. Of course, there were critics of his piece (especially of his curious choice of a couple of writers who might not be considered “literary” by some standards), but there was also a great deal of sympathy for his thesis.

Maybe I shouldn’t get so upset. There are plenty of good writers who manage to produce imaginative turns of phrase and still create convincing characters who talk like real people in believable, yet complicated worlds. In short, they are writing books I want to read, books I want to emulate in my own writing. Perhaps I’m annoyed because I let myself get conned into wasting a perfectly good evening (and my $22) when I should have done my research. And there is always something to learn, even if it’s just the meaning of a word I’ll never use.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

On Martinis and Mozart

My dad, George Fairburn Brett, died 14 years ago today at age 91. His life spanned most of the 20th century. He was born not long after the Wright Brothers successfully flew their plane at Kitty Hawk, saw our world shrink first through radio and then television, witnessed a man landing on the moon, lived through two world wars (too young to fight in the first, too old for the second), and the Great Depression. I wonder what he would have made of the socially networked world, what he would have thought of the possibility that he might not have his daily paper to hold in his hand. Interestingly, although he was a physicist by training and worked in the electronics industry his whole life, he never quite grasped the importance or potential of computers or how they would change people’s lives. His very considerable brain power started failing just as personal computers were coming into their own. His vote for the greatest invention of the last 150 years would go to the internal combustion engine.

I tried to imagine what he would have said about himself on his Facebook page though I believe even in his full right mind he would have pooh-poohed the concept. But here is my best guess (with a few additional categories thrown in).

Activities: Listening to music standing up, walking briskly, tinkering with the hi-fi and putting together “Heathkits,” making wine (and drinking it), intellectual conversation, reading, musing, composing doggerel, writing letters, sitting in the sun, traveling for business until age 65 when replaced by imagining what the neighbors are up to and schmoozing at the pub.

Interests: Classical music, three martini business lunches, philosophy (especially Bertrand Russell), physical sciences, the weather, cures for asthma, first class travel, aphorisms, words, foreign languages, theater (selected).

Favorite movies: Never watch movies.

Favorite TV shows: Even though involved with the development of color TV, haven’t watched TV since the 1950s, except for Wimbledon tennis and the news. Did enjoy “Your Show of Shows” (Sid Ceasar) and Milton Berle once upon a time.

Favorite Music: Classical music before the 18th century, mostly Mozart and Hadyn (own 200 records of same). Mozart operas.

Favorite authors: (not in any particular order) Jane Austin, James Joyce (have read Ulysses at least 100 times), Mark Twain (best American humorist), Henry Miller (that man can write about sex), Damon Runyan, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Montaigne, W.H. Auden, and H.L. Mencken.

Favorite places: New York, San Francisco, London

Favorite trip: Travelling around the US by train in 1928, including the Grand Canyon.

Favorite quotations: See my daughter Belle’s profile, plus, “Lay off that nostalgia, brother; it’s lethal.”

Most proud of: Climbing to the top of Mount Rainier. Never having stayed in a hospital (except for a few tests) until those last few weeks.

What I’m most proud of about my children and grandchild: Beth’s prodigious talent and perseverance as a designer; Belle’s trip around the world in her 20s; Pippa’s Ph.D. in Physics.

Greatest regret: Not having sufficient talent to have learned a musical instrument. Not having seen more of the world.

About me: Born in Ipswich, England, January 11, 1904 . Oldest of five (one brother, three sisters). Family moved to Leeds. Mother into health food—nuts and dried fruit. Father, who left school at 12 to work in the coal mines, eventually became Lord Mayor of Leeds. Earned Ph.D. in Physics from Leeds University, did two post-docs, including one at the University of Michigan, setting in motion interest in returning to the USA. Finally had to take a real job at age 27. Worked in same company for whole career: Marconi Co., which later became English Electric, which then became Marconi again before its eventual demise. Moved from the bench to patents in the 1940s. Married to Josephine Carlton, artist and art teacher, in 1943. During WWII, worked on development of radar. Two daughters. Finally landed job of dreams, 3000 miles away from boss, as liaison with the American electronics industry and eventually a VP, enjoying the aforementioned first class travel and three martini lunches. Lived in Lancaster and later Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1950-1968. Retired to London in 1968 to live a life of Riley.

Perhaps it is unfair of me, the daughter, to reveal my father in a way he might not publicly have done so himself. He was not one to laud his achievements. He was as harsh on himself as he could be about others and didn’t want to do anything if he was going to be second rate. But my gift to him is a web presence. And while it is not the sum of us, who are we these days if we cannot be found through Googling our names?

So as I raise my martini glass while listening to a little Mozart, I thank you, Dad, for what I got from you—a fast walking pace, a good immune system, curiosity about the world, a love of language, a healthy dose of cynicism, and a penchant for musing. (I could have done without the bad feet and impossible high standards that sometimes keep me from taking chances). But unlike you at my age, I see a life ahead of me full of possibilities, a life enhanced greatly by my computer. Although you did not believe in God nor an afterlife, I want to think that somewhere in the great beyond, you are urging me on to go forth, make my mark, and hang the critics, including those inside my head.

Monday, April 6, 2009

On the Devil is in the Details

“Last Wednesday, I went to the mall. No, I think it was Thursday, because I always go to the mall in the morning, and Wednesday morning I had a doctor’s appointment. Yes, I remember it had to be Thursday because I left town on Friday. Anyway…” How many of us have stifled yawns as a beloved family member recounts something that happened to them? As an acquaintance of mine would say sarcastically, “Get it right; it’s important.” But, of course, sometimes the details are important. It all depends on the context. In a police report, the day of the week would be crucial.

In fiction, details are what make a story rich and interesting, and the details you choose to share are important whether to establish texture or to provide valuable information that highlights a character or moves the narrative forward. So, how important is it that the details accurately represent reality? Since it’s fiction, we may conclude that it doesn’t matter. But….

Last year at a writer’s conference, I attended a program called “Agent Idol,” modeled loosely after “American Idol,” with its panel format. The idea behind the program was to show what kinds of things raised red flags for agents and editors and possibly stopped them from reading further. Attendees submitted first pages of their novels or stories to be read out anonymously by a reader. When the reader hit a line in the first paragraph of my novel in which I refer to a pair of handcuffs attached to a wall in a love hotel in Tokyo, one agent’s hand shot up. “Ridiculous,” the agent said (and I am paraphrasing). “I’ve never seen handcuffs attached to a wall; they come down from ceilings.” In fact, I had researched love hotels and their various accessories, and, indeed, photos show quite clearly that wall handcuffs exist. But that didn’t matter. My use of this particular detail, which the agent did not find believable, especially early in my story before I had engaged her, ruined my credibility. In a later rewrite, I eliminated the reference to the wall. Why take a chance?

In my own reading, I notice that I, too, am put off by details that seem wrong, whether or not one could argue for them. For example, much of Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty is set in a town near Boston, where I have lived for the past 30+ years. Early on she describes the architecture of a house that she probably saw in a part of downtown Boston. She transplants this four-story house (mistakenly called “New England” style, which that house is decidedly not) to a neighborhood near her fictional college. I wracked my brains trying to think where such a campus could be to have a house like this, and I could not. Strike one. Just a page later, she talks about someone coming up to see the “Color” in the area in September. By the Color we assume she is talking about the autumn leaves, which don’t turn in this part of New England until mid-October. Later, there were instances of impossible travel routes to add further to my annoyance. Had I found her writing less ponderous perhaps I would have been willing to forgive these transgressions.

In her blog,The Write Reality, Pippa Goldschmidt, a scientist and fiction writer, tells of her irritation when writers misrepresent science. But she also argues that “a desire for accuracy can shade into pedantry.” It may be important to consider from whose point of view the story is told, and what might that person know or not know as they view their world? How does any inaccuracy illuminate their character?

These are useful considerations. If we require 100% accuracy in our stories, we would either write only about what we know very well, spend all our time doing research and fact checking, or create only fantasy worlds. Perhaps what counts are consistency and plausibility within the context of our particular tale. Ask those whom we ask to review our stories before we send them out if anything trips them up? If your setting is one with which you are less familiar, find a reader who has lived there. Or if you are describing a profession, give it someone who understands that profession. When needed, do some basic research using credible sources. And remember, even if it’s accurate, it may not be believable! (But it really happened like that!)

Of course, there will always be readers who, convinced they know it all, will delight in pointing out your supposed errors. You won’t please everyone. Just hope you can please the agents and the editors.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

On the Promise of Spring

Lorraine never knew what awaited her in the garden in those pubescent days of spring. In preparation for the long New England winter, she had cut back the spent shoots, with their brown leaves and mummified flowers but left the plants that seemed to have a vestige of life. Eventually, these too lost their color and began to rejoin the earth. Only the sea grasses, turned straw color, and the small crabapples clinging to bare branches, managed to maintain any visual interest. Finally, when the ground was no longer frozen towards the end of March, she surveyed the tiny urban landscape to determine what work was needed to ready it for the new season’s display.

It didn’t look too daunting at first. With a rusted rake left in the garage by previous owners, she clawed at the masses of tangled twigs of the dead catmint and spirolina and found underneath the drooping leaves of tulips struggling for sunlight. She’d forgotten about the tulips. They flowered so early and then disappeared, but now they were a welcome surprise as she anticipated their yellow and purple cups opening up to the sky.

Lorraine stepped more gingerly now, especially once she noticed the offspring of the twigs poking their delicate red-rouged tips through the soil. Although she found herself perusing the Southern California and Hawaii real estate listings during winters when she and Joe buried the garden with snow from the driveway, she had to admit she would miss the more dramatic change of seasons, especially the promise of spring. The way the flowers and the plants would reappear despite her complete neglect for months made her feel that anything was possible. At the end of May when the grape arbor was still not showing much signs of life, she would be convinced it had finally died, and then leaf by leaf it would return until it was so bushy she had to prune it.

Those acts gave her faith that she wasn’t that old, that maybe even her best years were ahead. Some people started whole new careers at 60. One of her high school classmates had left a respectable professorship to make cheese. Another had sold his business and was building wooden Dory boats. She fancied herself a writer, perhaps a poet. The garden kept her dreams of renewal alive.

The above is an excerpt from a story I wrote the first full year I threw myself into writing. Interestingly, my garden was also somewhat new at the time. I like readying it for its all too short growth season. In addition to the sheer joy of being in the fresh air after a housebound winter and of using muscles in ways the gym never quite replicates, I find the creative juices stirring there. Maybe, as Lorraine says it is the “promise of spring,” a chance to shed one’s layers and begin anew. There is something about the longer days, the brighter light, the multiple shades of green, that energize the spirit.

I have been productive these last few months—I’ve about finished a draft of another novel, started this blog, researched my list of agents, and sent out a few queries, but in truth, I think I feel more like a writer this time of year. However, without moving to a land of eternal sunshine, perpetual flowers and warm breezes (though I love Hawaii), I want it to be spring in my mind all the time, to feel confident in this new choice, to let go of any fear of failure.

In her book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years after 50 (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009), Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot shares stories of people who have reinvented themselves after age 50. She talks about “going home,” replaying experiences from childhood and using new opportunities to heal earlier pain. It wasn’t until recently that I realized I “wrote” all the time as a child. I didn’t actually write down the stories I created, but I talked them out loud as I illustrated them in pencil. Alas, most of these were lost after my parents moved, but I remember a theme of hope that permeated them—poor into rich, plain into beautiful, lonely into accepted—each a story of longing and then fulfillment. Now I, the adult in my third chapter, owe it to that budding writer of so long ago to realize her dreams, and like that child and like the gardener, enjoy the journey itself, with all its effort and promise.